I found a great article in Tuesday’s Health section of the New York Times, titled “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories”.
The article’s author (John Tierney) and Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox, conducted an experiment in New York City (which banned trans fats in restaurants) to discover “Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?”
Dr. Chandon’s answer, which was derived from laboratory experiments as well as field work at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, is that Americans have been “seduced into overeating by the so-called health halo associated with certain foods and restaurants.”
So what is a health halo exactly? It’s certain restaurants touting their low-fat entrees or sandwiches that delude consumers. The authors argue that this “health halo” ends up cushioning us from the realities of what lies beneath the surface.
Americans (especially New Yorkers who have been barraged with the dangers of trans fat) have trouble gauging calories when we’re told something is “healthy”.
I could easily argue this for many of the low-fat treats I began eating when I joined Weight Watchers. Though I was never an ice-cream person, suddenly I “had” to have a Skinny Cow every night because they were “low-fat”. But because they were so good, I’d eat two. And at 150 calories a pop, I might as well have eaten a full Snickers bar for the amount of calories in two — or a real dinner, instead of a bowl of cereal or a Lean Cuisine (my dinner back in the day).
Likewise, I’ve definitely bought light chips, Snackwells, fat-free/sugar-free pudding, etc. simply because they seemed healthier than the original alternative food item. And, more often than not, I over-ate these items simply because I read the label and was deluded.
That said, sometimes, the trade-off makes sense. I love cocoa at night and am happy with a Splenda-sweetened cocoa for 1 point versus regular Swiss Miss for 2. And I can stop at one packet. And I prefer soycrisps to potato chips. Though a “junk food,” they actually have some nutritional merit.
However, with the Skinny Cows, I had to just stop buying them. I was abusing them — and just because they were “healthier” didn’t mean they needed to be part of my daily menu plan. I’ve been Skinny Cow sober about three years now.
When we dine at home, it’s pretty easy to control what we’re ingesting, but the study was particularly addressing restaurant food.
Fortunately, I’m really good when it comes to dining out — I order smart (grilled/broiled everything, and always dry) if not boring. Over the years, I’ve learned the tricks of the trade.
I admire people who eat “light” at home and then enjoy meals out, but I am too much of a control-freak for that. I’ll enjoy a delicious burger at home — not out at a restaurant. So I don’t usually get snookered.
That said, I could easily see how someone with very limited nutritional knowledge would fall victim to marketing promises of “low-fat” and “sugar-free” or “wholesome” whatever, and not realize that whatever they’re eating is still a caloric nightmare — or that half might be a sufficient serving.
I love this final line from Dr. Chandon:
“Being French, I don’t have any problem with people enjoying lots of foods,” he said. “Europeans obsess less about nutrition but know what a reasonable portion size is and when they have had too much food, so they’re not as biased by food and diet fads and are healthier. Too many Americans believe that to lose weight, what you eat matters more than how much you eat. It’s the country where people are the best informed about food and enjoy it the least.”
Food for thought.
How about you? Have you ever fallen victim to the health halo?