One Small Change: Avoid the Health Halo

Healthy-sounding terms like "organic" "low-carb" or "all-natural" don't mean a food has fewer calories than similar foods without labels. Are you guilty of falling for foods with health halos?
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Very healthy dietary

Photo by: Rudyanto Wijaya

Rudyanto Wijaya

Just as the first impressions of a person can influence our perception of them far into the future, research shows the same can be said for the foods we eat. Once a food or restaurant is deemed “healthy”, we tend to let our guard down and forget about the facts of what we are truly eating – a proverbial junk-food wolf in a nutritious sheep’s clothing. This phenomenon for food has been dubbed the “health halo” effect.

You may have experienced a similar situation in another aspect of life: relationships. One of your friends may have become so smitten with one feature of a potential suitor (they’re attractive or fun to be around) that they completely disregarded the ten other red flags about them (i.e. they’re chronically late, don’t have a job, quick to yell at others) even though everyone else, including you, clearly saw the inconsistencies. Don’t let the same thing happen to you with the foods that you eat!

Here are a couple “seductive” labeling tactics that could lure you into eating foods that may just end up becoming a bad date for you and your waistline:

Low-Carb, Low-Fat or Trans-Fat Free

These labels are dangerous, because they mask the real issue: calories. Just because a food is labeled as low-carb, low-fat or trans-fat free does not necessarily make it low-calorie. Excess calories are what ultimately lead to weight gain, regardless of whether they are from carbs, fat, trans-fat or protein.

Why do most foods with “low-carb” and “low-fat” labels tend to have similar calories to their full-carb and fat versions? Taste. To make the foods tasty, companies may add in significant amounts of fat (for “low-carb” foods) or sugar (for “low-fat” foods) during the production process.

It goes beyond replacing one nutrient with the other (carbs vs. fat), the quality of the food itself can suffer as well. Added fats and sugars are rarely beneficial to us compared to the natural fats and sugars of foods like avocados and apples, which usually come along with health-promoting fiber, water, vitamins and minerals. So if the low-fat, low-carb or trans-fat free snacks  taste processed or “too good to be true”, they probably are.

Finally, research has shown that people tend to over-eat these seductively labeled foods because they think they’re eating “healthier.” You actually may have been better off (and more satisfied) by eating a smaller portion of a regular snack. That’s how the French paradox has developed: you can eat rich foods and stay slender, as long as you eat them in moderation. Ultimately it’s the total calories that matter.

All-Natural and Organic
All-natural is a “feel good” phrase. It sounds nice and looks great on paper (or packages). Unfortunately from a health or calorie perspective, it means absolutely nothing. There are very few regulations regarding the use of the term “natural”, so pretty much any pastry made from flour, butter and sugar can be called natural. Even many sugar-laden cereals are deemed natural. An analogy I tell my clients about the natural label is: many illicit drugs are considered natural because they come from plants … would you consume them if they were suddenly labeled “all-natural”?

The term organic grew out of a way to differentiate how certain fruits and vegetables were treated during the growing and cultivation process (i.e. types of pesticides used). However, as the name caught on, food companies decided to capitalize on the health halo surrounding the term. Are organic cookies, chips or gummy bears really all that much healthier than non-organic ones? The answer can be up for debate (particularly due to the use of genetically modified organisms [GMO’s]), but from a calorie intake and weight-gain comparison, the answer is typically no. You’re probably getting a similar amount of sugar, fat and calories from either source. Furthermore, a 2011 Cornell study showed that people may underestimate the calories from these organic foods compared to their regular counterparts. Too much organic fat and organic sugar can still lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Take Action: Don’t be fooled by marketing; read the nutrient label and ingredient list of any packaged food labeled “low-fat”, “low-carb”, “natural”, “all-natural” or “organic”. If the low-fat or low-carb options are just as high in calories as the regular version, consider whether you’d be more satisfied by consuming a moderate amount of the regular. If the natural or organic foods are made with ingredients that you know aren’t healthy, like saturated fats and added sugars, then having the ingredients in the form of an organic source won’t help your waistline.

Have you had any recent health halo realizations about the foods you’re eating? Tell us!

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