This may surprise you, but “healthy” food could actually be holding you back from reaching your goals. By “healthy” food I do not mean fruits, veggies and other whole and unprocessed foods. I am talking about foods labeled as “diet”, “fat free”, etc. Marketing is fantastic at labeling foods with these hot topic phrases, and of course when we see these foods and beverages, we think they are better for us. We then buy that “diet” food and tell ourselves we can now eat as much as we want because it's “diet.” This is called the health halo effect of food.
The health halo effect of food is defined as over-consuming foods you perceive to be healthy because of trigger words, without any knowledge that the food is better for you than other options. We all tend to want to classify and place things into specific categories. This often happens with food and it is often labeled “good” or “bad.” When we see that a food is low fat, gluten free, fat free, lower sodium, etc. our minds generally move that food into the “good” food category.
A good example to look at is chips. I wanted to compare the reduced fat vs. regular UTZ potato chips.
If you compare the 2 nutrition labels, they are barely different! Both have a serving size of 1oz, but the reduced fat is only 10 calories less and 2 grams of fat less. But while you may see a slightly lower calorie intake on the reduced fat version, they are actually much higher in sodium content! So you end up trading 10 calories for a lot of sodium that may lead to excess water weight.
This is where marketing for food is ingenious. Why would we look at a nutrition label that closely when we have giant bold words like reduced fat on the front? We don’t, and companies know that! This is when that health halo effect kicks in. Naturally when we think a food is “good” for us vs. bad, we eat more. When we know something isn’t healthy, we typically eat a smaller portion. In the case of these chips, though, the reduced fat is no better for you than the regular version, but you may find yourself eating twice as much. Over the years a lot of studies have been done to understand the psyche towards food. Even foods with names with trigger words are eaten in bigger portions. If a dessert has the word “lite” in the title, the mind thinks this food is healthier than the “deluxe chocolate cake” next to it. We haven’t even looked at the nutrition label and have no idea which one has more calories, fat and added sugar.
Overall the health halo effect of food can cause us to overeat thinking we are making good food choices. To remedy this issue, take the extra few seconds to compare nutrition labels. Understand the differences between regular and low fat. Like with the chips, you lose a few calories but gain a ton of sodium. In that case, it’s better to just eat the regular version, and stick to a standard portion. So take that time to educate yourself on what you’re eating and the potential downfalls of these “healthy” options. While no food should ever be considered "bad," understanding what you're consuming can help you make good decisions and find balance in your diet.
Until next time… and remember nutrition is for all!