The Blinding Light of Health Halos

photo courtesy of Flickr user digiyesica

photo courtesy of Flickr user digiyesica

Sometimes a single attribute of a food over-shadows all other factors.   That’s a health halo at work.

You can get blind-sided by words like low-fat, organic, gluten-free and vegan — and give products more credit than they desire.  Just because a donut is devoid of gluten or is “green tea flavored” doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  An organic cheese puff is still a cheese puff — it’s not suddenly nutritious or lower in calories. 


Even so, it’s easy to fall victim to the allure of a health halo.  That’s the topic of my column in the October issue of  Cooking Light magazine.

I previously wrote about the impact of health halos on Nutrition Unplugged:

A health halo is one of those hidden persuaders that can get you to overeat or to eat more than you intended, says Brian Wansink, PhD, who has conducted a bulk of the studies on this phenomenon at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University

Health-halo based research got started because scientists were trying to explain what they call the “American obesity paradox.”  At a time when lower-calorie options and diet-friendly foods have exploded in this country — our collective girth continues to expand. 

We’re a nation of low-fat foods but high-fat people, Wansink says.

If a food is under the spell of a health halo, it increases a person’s serving size estimate.  For example, Wansink found that when people opted for a low-fat snack, they ended up eating up to 90 more calories compared to people who selected regular snacks.

When people know what they’re eating may be indulgent, Wansink says, they come much closer to estimating the right number of calories.

That’s why I’m more in favor of having a reasonable portion of the “real thing,” rather than always defaulting for the light, sugar-free or low-fat versions.  You may end up eating more and enjoying it less.  

Bottom line:  Keep your eyes wide open when making your food choices.  Don’t allow a health halo to cloud your view.  Don’t let a single claim or trendy ingredient skew your judgment.  Keep pleasure part of the picture and keep sight of your portions.  And remember, it’s the total nutritional package that counts.

Hope you’ll check out my column in Cooking Light and let me know what you think.

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  • I have the issue right in front of me! Great article Janet, and what a fitting picture to go with it. 🙂

  • Liz

    This sounds like a pretty common problem. I know that I could definitely rationalize eating a caramel apple with minimal guilt. Someone brought in flax seed chips at work, and even though I know better, it was easy to convince myself that they were healthy.

  • Hi Janet,
    I love your site. I’m a fellow dietitian. Great article and so true! It amazes me how trendy ingredients and “lingo” make us sometimes feel like we’re eating “healthier”. Look at the word “natural”. it’s thrown around and used all over the place! How is a processed bag of chips ever going to be “natural”? :-).

  • Great post Janet! I love that phrase, “health halo.” It is true that consumers get so wrapped up in a few buzz words that they forget moderation is key!

  • Excellent article, Janet!
    I believe it’s important to choose “health” first… over the amount of calories, or fat, or any marketing hype from the product label. Food is either going to add to our health or subtract from it, and we don’t always clearly see which way it’ll go just be reading the nutrition information on the package!! I think we’re better off reading the list of ingredients first – looking for few ingredients and real food sources. Better yet, eat more food that doesn’t even come with a label because it’s fresh, “real” food, and not packaged!! : )
    I’m glad I found your site!!

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