The Health Halo

20078I 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?

11 thoughts on “The Health Halo

  1. YES! I definitely have!! At first on WW, I would sit and eat an entire box of ff/sf chocolate pudding with a banana because it was “good for me”… then the artificial sweeteners got to me, and I had to stop. I’m working on eating a small amount of the “real” stuff instead of mass quantities of the “fake” stuff.

  2. I’m glad you brought that last line in because it resonated with me the most. I’m on a new crusade these days to enjoy REAL food (with wine, real cheese, real sugar) in smaller amts.

    I’ve been on and off weight watchers for six years now. I’m fully aware what diet substitutes there are in the world. I know I can have one scoop of real ice cream or 3 scoops of fat free, sugar free yogurt. for those that love volume, the answer is obvious.

    but I think that eating these foods labeled with health halos has been the cause of my binge eating problem that absolutely needs to end. I think fake things confuse my body: it doesn’t know that things that are sweet are red light foods because I’ve tricked it with calorie-free sweet foods. now my body understands sweet as a green light food and it’s a slippery slope for me. When I come across a real slice of apple pie, instead of stopping after one slice, I could inhale the whole thing.

    I am too much diet-know how to fall victim to restaurant food slip-ups and not estimating the calories in a given food correctly. I think my issue is the presence of diet foods in my diet, so my pre-new year’s resolution has been to eliminate them full stop.

    thanks for the article!

  3. this is such a great post about the true reason Americans struggle with obesity. It is not because of high fat and low fiber items. i will also tell you what my mother lives by: that woman who eat regular ice cream tend to be at healthier weights than those that eat frozen yogurt. take that both ways!!

    it keeps us more satisfied and therefore “eating less”.
    i’d rather eat 1 cup of vanilla bean hagen dasz then binge endlessly on reduced sugar breyer’s!!

  4. Amen, ladies. Amen!!!

    I used to DOWN Thomas Sweets ff frozen yogurt in Georgetown– rarely satisfied with one cone (it’s 10 cals an ounce). but had I eaten a tiny REAL scoop of ice cream, I bet it would have been plenty.

    Cathy, good luck with your resolution and, as my buddy in all this, I might be following suit 🙂 I think they DO confuse our bodies.

  5. Absolutely! And I know now that the fat from “regular” products fills you up more than the emptiness of low-fat/low-cal products. I will admit…I am still drawn to the low-fat/low-cal stuff. But I am finally realizing that if I am REALLY hungry, I need to go with what will tide me over. 😉

  6. Wow!! This is so insightful…and may be part of my own disordered eating. Just because something is “points-friendly” doesn’t mean its good for me. And with the points system I found myself eating when I wasn’t hungry just because I had points left for the day!

    Very insightful article!!
    –Krystyna

  7. So true, Holly. I see it like a learning curve. First we want to eat what we always ate and find ways to “fit it in.”Then we learn to find substitutions. Then we realize those substitutions aren’t so great and go back to the real stuff — in smaller portions. Heck, this topic of “the curve” could be an entry!

    Thanks, Krystyna!

  8. funny… i read this post after the one of today 😛

    and i just realized something… it’s true that my binge eating and my eating at night begun when i started to eat “fake food”. And when i do eat real food, at home or at my bf’s house, i binge rarely or don’t wake up at night…

    i think i should change my mind and go quality over quantity :-O

  9. Rather, it is them who have to spend their life together for many years and had formed an” equitable partnership. This means, is living together, and made acquaintances with a few of the things that you need to pay out attention to the details that matter and overlooking the ones that do not.

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