The Devilish Effect of a ‘Health Halo’

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Candi Mandi

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Candi Mandi

Go ahead , they’re low fat!

Haven’t you heard that before?  Haven’t you thought that?

You’re not alone.  Lots of people tend to let down their guard when they think something is low fat. It’s a tempting lure on food labels and on restaurant menus.  A low-fat label can be a blinding spell that researchers have dubbed a “health halo,” and this devilish effect could be adding to your unwanted pounds.

The concept of a health halo has been around for several years now, and new studies continue to document the potential downfall.  I first wrote about the health halo a few years ago for Researchers at Cornell University found that people who chose low-fat snacks ended up eating even more calories compared to their counterparts who selected regular snacks.  The low-fat snackers consumed 90 more calories — presumably because they mistakenly thought low fat = low calories.

I interviewed co-author Brian Wansink at the time who described low-fat labels as “hidden persuaders” that can get you to overeat or to eat more than you intended.

Studies have repeatedly shown that putting a low-fat label on food causes people, especially those who are overweight, to underestimate its calories, to eat bigger helpings and to indulge in other foods.   Researchers believe low-fat labels give people the mental permission to eat more.  They may feel less guilty about their choice — which leads them to eat more.

John Tierney wrote about the effect of health halos in the New York Times. He participated in an interesting study that stopped people on the streets of New York to ask them how many calories they thought were in two restaurant meals. Half were shown a picture of an Oriental Chicken Salad with a soft drink, the other half were shown a picture of the same salad and drink plus two crackers that were prominently labeled as “trans fat free.”

Guess what happened?  People overestimated the calories in the first meal — they thought it contained 1,011 calories, yet it was 934 calories.  In the second meal, the crackers added 100 calories to the meal, bringing it to 1,034 calories, but their presence skewed people’s estimates in the opposite direction.  The average estimate for the meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.  The researchers concluded:

The trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal.

A new University of Chicago study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that calling a food “healthy” may make you hungrier.  Researchers conducted several experiments to explore the impact of health claims and the relationship to satiety.  They found that when people ate food described as “healthy” they were hungrier afterwards compared to people who ate the same food described as “tasty.”  In fact, the people who ate “a new health bar” felt hungrier than if they hadn’t eaten a bar at all.    However, when given the chance to decide between a “healthy” or a “tasty” bar, there was no difference in hunger levels between the two groups.  The authors concluded:

When people feel obligated to eat healthy, it’s making them hungry and they eat more.  When they eat the same food because they have free choice, they are not going to rebound by eating a lot.

Beyond healthy, low fat and trans fat free, many of today’s popular health claims including reduced calorie, cholesterol free, no high fructose corn syrup, organic and all natural can lead people to select foods, especially snack items, without paying much attention to whether these foods are truly nutritious choices.  The virtuous image created by the health claim seems to short circuit the normal process of evaluating foods.   An organic cheese puff is still a cheese puff.  A sweetened drink or dessert that claims no high fructose corn syrup still contains sugar and the same number of calories as before.  The glare from these health halos tend to make people over-estimate the nutritional value of these foods and under-estimate how much they’re really eating.  Wansink calls health halos “invisible cues” that can make us reach for more.

So what do I believe? I think this is even more evidence  to enjoy real foods — and be mindful when eating.   Savor a small square of luscious dark chocolate instead of a slab of sugar-free candy, enjoy a pat of real butter on your toast or vegetables instead of reduced-fat stick margarine, and toss  your salad with  olive oil and vinegar  instead of low-fat bottled dressing.  Do not let low fat dominate your decisions about snacks.  Look at the total picture — calories and overall nutritional value — not just the low-fat label.  Bottom line:  Eat what you love and love what you eat.  Keep enjoyment part of the picture and keep sight of portion size.

I agree with Pierre Chandon, who has conducted some of the health halo research and was quoted in John Tierney’s article:

Being French, I don’t have any problem with people enjoying lots of foods.  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.

What do you think?


The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims
Can Low-Fat Labels Lead to Obesity
Calling a Food “Healthy” May Make You Hungrier

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  • Seth W.

    “Healthy nutrition” really is as simple as eating what you’re craving, but only eating to the point of satisfaction. Of course you want to minimize processed and unnatural foods (such as margarine, etc.)

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  • Great post! I think this is a totally overlooked cause of weight gain in this country. How people think of food has a great impact on their eating habits. When I talk to people that would like to lose weight they always tell me they don’t have time to eat “healthy.” I tell them to change the way they eat first. Eat slowly, eat satisying food, sit down at the table and stop when you start to feel full. Hopefully this message is starting to get across.

  • Very interesting!! As I improve my relationship with food, I am noticing a great deal more about the visual cues provided by food manufacturers: the images and words on food packaging — not just the nutrition label. I often look for “healthy” or “organic” first when I am looking around for things at the grocery store, but the nutrition label is the final word.

    I think the difference for me though is that I know what my food plan looks like – I know what I am supposed to have in a day and in my week to have nutrient dense food. Having the framework helps me see when things are going to throw me outside the limits I have set, and at that point, it becomes a choice, rather than a guess.

    I agree – at the end of the day, I’m finding fresher foods are more filling, less ambiguous in their packaging (fruit and vegetables don’t need nutrition labels and warnings, do they?), and stand the test of time against many manufactured foods. Doesn’t keep me from enjoying variances in my meal plan every now and then, but it’s a better enjoyment because I know I allowed it.

  • Thanks for clearing up the low-fat myth once and for all. Off to make brownies now…

  • I love it Janet! I actually taught that concept before and sadly, it is very true that people think “healthy” means they can eat as much as they want. How about the chips that are called “vegetable chips” but when you look at the ingredients, they are actually made from a variety of potatoes???

    Especially now that I started blogging about food and nutrition, I’m more adopting this concept. People want to enjoy their food, have fun, but are often too distracted by the little specifics of low in this nutrient or high in that, and they end up taking the fun out food. I hope to see more dietitians abandon the “food police” roles.

  • Here’s a better guideline for you: Truly healthy food doesn’t come with a list of ingredients or nutritional content label. If it comes with a list of ingredients, pass. Try real fruits and vegetables, beans, etc.

  • so many good points. With regard to health claims, I am constantly amazed that people think they are going to find a good-for-you food next to the Fruit Loops or M & Ms. It’s as though people want to be lured. I hadn’t heard about people reporting more hunger after a “healthy” meal. It’s as though they are implying a lack of satiety of a level of deprivation. This is where nutrition (and I’m a nutritionist don’t worry) get a bad name if it takes us away from using our eyes, noses and taste buds to determine how much or little we should eat of something.

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  • Jessica

    its always bothered me that people believe that low fat foods mean you can eat however much you want of whatever that food might be. What causes you to gain weight are calories, not necessarily fats. Fats are used as a source of energy just like carbs and protein. As a matter of fact, i beleive they’re the first source used when doing physical activity. A meal, or food item can be low in fat but still be high in calories… a calorie is a calorie. Right?

  • cyrell

    The real problem is that people just do not know what they eat or what their body needs.

    Most people just do not care enough for their food and then they jump on the labels with low fat, low sugar, low calorie and what else is out there.

    Hard candy is fat free, pork rinds are carbohydrate free, soft drinks with artificial flavour and sweeteners are low in calorie…

    But if people would want to know about nutrition instead watching the newest episode of a soap opera or a talk show, they would see what is wrong with these choices.

    Not these choices are the real problem, the problem is that no one bothers to instruct people what good nutrition means.
    It looks like as if people are kept stupid on purpose so they consume..and people who do not ponder their choices, consume more.

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  • LBC

    See, I just don’t get this. I don’t eat things without reading the label to find out just what a “serving” is. I cannot imagine that anyone who is trying to eat more healthfully, or who is trying to manage his or her weight, wouldn’t do the same. A five-second peek at the nutritional information will tell them that they’re usually not saving any calories. (I don’t find nutritional labels hard to read or confusing, either.)

    The only logical explanation is that they’re willfully in denial. Isn’t this just another way of justifying bad eating habits?

    Not judging a book by its cover applies to food labels, too: It can say “healthy” or “organic” or “whole grain” or whatever all over the front of the package, but you still have to check the nutritional label.

  • Nice post, Thank you so much for sharing and hope you add more like this soon.

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