CBSN

Shedding Your "Healthy Halo"

Early Show - Healthy Halo - Jan. 13, 2009
CBS
If you've been trying to eat a healthier diet, but are still gaining weight, it may not be your fault.

You might be caught in what's come to be called a "healthy halo."

On The Early ShowTuesaday, contributor and registered dietician Keri Glassman said Americans trying to be more vigilant about what they eat may be forgetting that CALORIES still count.

Researchers think the "healthy halo" may explain that American obesity paradox. People may be eating healthier, but they're not eating less, especially when it comes to foods that are associated with healthy eating, such as low-fat, organic, and all natural offerings. The researchers found that, when people thought they were eating healthier, they consumed more calories, choosing beverages, side dishes, and desserts containing up to 131 percent more calories when the main dish was positioned as "healthy."

Example One: Choosing A Meal

Group one shown Applebee's Oriental Chicken Salad and 20 ounce cup of regular Pepsi.
Subjects estimated the meal to be 1,011 calories (it was actually 934 calories).
Group two shown Applebee's Oriental Chicken Salad and 20 ounce cup of regular Pepsi AND two "trans fat free" crackers.
Crackers added 100 calories to the meal but people estimated meal to be 835 calories!

Example Two: Choosing A Fast Food Meal

People given choice of Big Mac or 12-inch Subway Italian sandwich.
Subway sandwich has more calories than the Big Mac. In addition, people who chose it were more likely to add a large non-diet soda AND cookies because of the health associations with Subway's low-fat meals. Subway has some very good low-fat choices on its menu, but not everything is low calorie. They felt more virtuous but added about 60 percent more calories!
This is not to say you should choose the Big Mac. You should NOT! But, you can't let the Healthy Halo cloud your virtuous behavior!

Example Three: Choosing A Snack

M&M's Regular as opposed to "low-fat."
People underestimated calories in low-fat, even though low-fat fat doesn't exist!
People increased estimates of appropriate serving size.
Granola: Regular as opposed to "low fat"
Normal and overweight people said they'd feel little guilt about eating the "low-fat" granola even though they'd feel guilty overeating "low-fat" M&M's. Overweight people viewed "low-fat" M&M's as guilt-free!

Results:
Labeling snacks as "low-fat" increases food intake during a single consumption by up to 50 percent. To counteract this, researchers suggest increasing calorie and serving-size on labels.

Example Four: Chips, Cookies!

Multi-grain Sun Chips compared to regular Frito Lay Potato Chips
Newman's Organic Choc. Chip Cookies and Snackwells vs. Oreos and Chips Ahoy

So, what's a consumer to do?

Look for trans-fat-free, look for natural, etc., but you must read labels for calories! Glassman says she gas clients who come in for the first time and say they're no longer eating ice cream for dessert, but have picked up a new organic cookie habit! Just because something is healthy does NOT mean it's low in calories. Your goal should be to eat healthy AND low in calories - especially if you are trying to lose weight!