Why the health halo effect makes you overeat

health halo effectImagine you sit down to enjoy your favourite low fat yoghurt... You know it has far fewer calories than the standard yoghurts at the supermarket, so you don’t feel guilty about eating one. After you finish it, you realize you’re still a little peckish, so, with the understanding that these yoghurts are very low in fat and quite healthy, you go into your refrigerator and take out another.

What may not realise is that you’ve just taken part in what nutritionists are calling the ‘health halo effect’, making you overeat. The health halo effect causes us to justify the eating of larger portions if we perceive something as healthy.

A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity followed the eating decisions of 186 participants. These participants were presented with different pairings of food, including different kinds of cereals, skim milk, soft drink, reduced-fat and luxury coleslaw. One of the pairs was designated as “healthy” in some way, either as reduced fat or with added vitamins and minerals. The other was simply a standard food option.

The participants were told to serve themselves what they believed was a healthy, appropriate portion. They were also told to estimate (on a scale of 1 to 5) the level of guilt they would feel from eating the portion, as well as each portion’s energy density.

The participants had some very interesting insights for the researchers: they believed that the healthier food and drink choices made them feel less guilty but had less energy than the standard options, which in turn led them to take larger portions of the healthier options – in some cases by as much as 71%.

These larger portions totally defeat the purpose of eating reduced fat foods in the first place. But even more problematic is that many of these reduced fat or otherwise “healthy” food options are compensating in some way, usually to maintain the flavour. That means adding more of ingredients like sugar and sodium into the finished product. This presents a real problem when larger quantities are consumed due to the health halo effect.

Even when you’re eating healthy alternatives, keep in mind that you should always stick to your recommended dietary intake. And remember that just because something has less fat, it isn’t necessarily healthier.

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