Have you noticed the ever-expanding variety of functional foods that exist in supermarkets? A functional food is one that claims to have health-promoting properties, beyond the basic functions of the calories and other nutrients the food provides. One of the earliest examples was iodized salt, which was created to help prevent goiters, and then we added folic acid to wheat to help prevent neural tube defects.
Source: iStock Photo
I’ve always believed, as the new dietary guidelines point out, “there are no bad foods, only bad food patterns”. So when someone asks me if a certain food is “bad” or “good”, I make it clear that any food can fit into a healthy diet and lifestyle. Some functional foods are certainly better for you than others, but how do you know if a “health food” is really providing the benefits you are banking on?
Joy Bauer, the Today Show dietitian, once said, “Make sure the food was healthy before the “functional part” was added”
I love this!
For example, would you think these chips (below) were healthy if they didn’t include flaxseeds? Probably not. But might you eat more of them simply because they include the “health promoting flaxseeds?” Probably! This is an example of a health halo. I’m not saying these chips (or other functional foods) are bad, I’m simply saying that just because a food has a healthy component, doesn’t mean you should eat twice as much. Ask yourself, “was the food healthy before the functional part was added?” If the answer is no, still enjoy the food, but don’t let the health halo lead you to eating more than enough.By the way, in order for the beneficial fats and other nutrients to be absorbed from the flaxeeds in these chips and any product that uses whole flaxseeds, they need to be ground. So…..you better chew these chips well!
Restaurant Health Halos
In a recent article from Nutrition Action Magazine a study was reported, which showed that customers underestimated the calories they consumed at restaurants that sounded more healthy. Health halo restaurants are ones that are typically known by customers to be more healthy, such as…..well, you know what they are. People underestimated how many calories they were consuming at certain health halo restaurants by about 27 percent, but only underestimated their calorie consumption at a place like McDonalds by only 19 percent.
Here are some startling nutrition facts from one common health halo restaurant:
– All Natural soups and chilis have up to 1600 mg sodium in a serving. All natural= All loaded with sodium
– Some breakfast options have up to 1500 mg sodium.
– Turkey sandwiches have up to 1900 mg sodium and 1000 calories. That’s before any sides are added.
– Whole salads up to 850 calories (before the dressing!) and 1650 mg sodium (before the dressing!)
– Small frozen drinks; 82 grams sugar (includes milk sugar, but still!).
But the great thing about these health halo restaurants is that you will always find healthier options on the menu (which is why they are known as healthier places to eat), but that’s not the point. People go into these places and assume everything is healthier than let’s say…McDonalds! But this just isn’t the case.
Other Health Halo Examples
Organic and natural foods are also a common health halo food. People were asked to estimate the calories in foods labeled as “organic” and they estimated the calories as being 15 to 20 percent lower in the organic foods, compared to their non-organic counterparts.Low fat foods have a health halo, as was shown by one study where people ate 21 to 47 percent more calories from foods they were told were “low fat”. This was the case even if they reported the taste as being inferior to the full-fat counterpart!
QUESTION: Do you think you fall in health halo traps? I know I have before….
I found this article super interesting. It discussed why “diet food” is so dissatisfying. It has a lot to do with our perception of food, which has a lot to do with what I discussed in this post.