Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are Health Halos Making You Eat More?

Have you noticed the ever-expanding variety of functional foods that exist in supermarkets? A functional food is one that claims to have health-promoting properties, beyond the basic functions of the calories and other nutrients the food provides. One of the earliest examples was iodized salt, which was created to help prevent goiters, and then we added folic acid to wheat to help prevent neural tube defects.

Source: iStock Photo

I've always believed, as the new dietary guidelines point out, "there are no bad foods, only bad food patterns". So when someone asks me if a certain food is "bad" or "good", I make it clear that any food can fit into a healthy diet and lifestyle. Some functional foods are certainly better for you than others, but how do you know if a "health food" is really providing the benefits you are banking on?

Joy Bauer, the Today Show dietitian, once said, "Make sure the food was healthy before the "functional part" was added"

I love this!

For example, would you think these chips (below) were healthy if they didn't include flaxseeds? Probably not. But might you eat more of them simply because they include the "health promoting flaxseeds?" Probably! This is an example of a health halo. I'm not saying these chips (or other functional foods) are bad, I'm simply saying that just because a food has a healthy component, doesn't mean you should eat twice as much. Ask yourself, "was the food healthy before the functional part was added?" If the answer is no, still enjoy the food, but don't let the health halo lead you to eating more than enough.

By the way, in order for the beneficial fats and other nutrients to be absorbed from the flaxeeds in these chips and any product that uses whole flaxseeds, they need to be ground. better chew these chips well!

Restaurant Health Halos

In a recent article from Nutrition Action Magazine a study was reported, which showed that customers underestimated the calories they consumed at restaurants that sounded more healthy. Health halo restaurants are ones that are typically known by customers to be more healthy, such as.....well, you know what they are. People underestimated how many calories they were consuming at certain health halo restaurants by about 27 percent, but only underestimated their calorie consumption at a place like McDonalds by only 19 percent.

Here are some startling nutrition facts from one common health halo restaurant:

- All Natural soups and chilis have up to 1600 mg sodium in a serving. All natural= All loaded with sodium

- Some breakfast options have up to 1500 mg sodium.

- Turkey sandwiches have up to 1900 mg sodium and 1000 calories. That's before any sides are added.

- Whole salads up to 850 calories (before the dressing!) and 1650 mg sodium (before the dressing!)

- Small frozen drinks; 82 grams sugar (includes milk sugar, but still!).

But the great thing about these health halo restaurants is that you will always find healthier options on the menu (which is why they are known as healthier places to eat), but that's not the point. People go into these places and assume everything is healthier than let's say...McDonalds! But this just isn't the case.

Other Health Halo Examples

Organic and natural foods are also a common health halo food. People were asked to estimate the calories in foods labeled as "organic" and they estimated the calories as being 15 to 20 percent lower in the organic foods, compared to their non-organic counterparts.

Low fat foods have a health halo, as was shown by one study where people ate 21 to 47 percent more calories from foods they were told were "low fat". This was the case even if they reported the taste as being inferior to the full-fat counterpart!

QUESTION: Do you think you fall in health halo traps? I know I have before....

I found this article super interesting. It discussed why "diet food" is so dissatisfying. It has a lot to do with our perception of food, which has a lot to do with what I discussed in this post.


  1. I definitely don't fall into these traps, but I'm sure many people do. I know a cookie is still a cookie, even if it is made with flax eggs and oats. I try to stay very informed on calories and what not, and don't let myself get fooled into thinking organic means 'eat as much as you want'. Great post :)

  2. It's funny because a lot of people assume that just because something's vegan it's healthy. I see a lot of blogs with vegan baked good recipes, claiming it's not only vegan but healthy too! While the items look good and probably taste good too, a dessert is often a treat, vegan or not. I so agree though. There aren't really "good" or "bad" foods, just good/bad patterns!

  3. This makes me think of people that buy all organic products because it's "healthier." There's still organic junk food!

  4. This is such an important message to get out there. And for us to really do our homework and know what is "healthy" and what isn't. Thanks Gina!!!!

  5. I'm sure I have fall into the health halo before when I was trying hard being healthy. And it's so easy to fool ourselves and the companies know that!
    One way to avoid those halos for me is to eat whole plain food. For example, if I think sweet potatos are good, then I'll eat sweet potatoes plain, steamed or roasted. I won't get sweet potatoes chips or candies or bars made with it. Plain and simple food are the only ones that deliver real nutrition!

  6. I love the "was it healthy before" thought process! What a great technique! :-) I see soooo many "health traps" every time I go to the grocery, it's amazing... and worrisome...

  7. Scary stuff. Thanks for all the great info.

  8. hmm this was interesting! i don't think i fall into the trap because i can usually tell its a trap but the trap persay has convinced me that i'll get some extra vitamins by eating pinkberry even though i know i got those vits like 10 hours ago from the huge head of kale i consumed haha

  9. That quote from Joy hits the nail on the head...I will certainly remember that one! I think butter is another great example. The Benecols and all those sterols out there.

    Great post, Gina! Can't wait for Sunday! :) I should probably start a fast now, huh? ;)

  10. Wow, great post! I definitely have fallen into these traps before, but fortunately being so careful about what I eat for my stomach has helped steer me away from these things. It really helps to pay attention to all the nutritional aspect of a food I think and I like the idea that if it wasn't healthy before, it's still not a good idea to eat a ton of it!

  11. Before I actually educated myself on ingredients and whole foods, I definitely fell for the health halo type foods. Natural? Oh, it's okay to eat. Fat free. Light. Organic. I could go on! But the point is - I totally agree that it's important to realize that just because a food is stamped with a seemingly healthy label, it doesn't mean that it's healthy. Sticking to whole foods that you can imagine in their natural state is the way to go. :)

    Great post :)

  12. This was very informative! I know I have fallen into this trap and people whom I serve low fat goodies too often go for a second helping because it's lower calorie! It kind of defeats the purpose!

  13. What an interesting post, Gina! Sounds like a trap I've fallen for a few times! I like the idea to ask ourselves if a food item would be "healthy" before and added ingredient or not. Brilliant!