Americans have the most healthy eating facts and information of any population in the world… and yet we seem to enjoy what we eat the least.
Estimates suggest that nearly two thirds of the U.S. adult population is overweight, though we obsess about nutrition… spend readily on weight loss “secrets”… seeing little (if any) progress for our efforts.
Even major cities like New York have jumped on the nutrition bandwagon, taking the unprecedented step of banning those “evil” trans fats from every restaurant in the city.
Our fixation with health and nutrition in this country may in fact be fueled by a phenomenon known as the “health halo”, the suggestion that a food labeled as “low fat” gives eaters permission to take in a larger portion size, add extras or eat desert as a “reward” for making a healthy food choice.
To illustrate the point, an informal survey was conducted by New York Times reporter John Tierney under the direction of Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has studied the American obesity paradox and Alexander Chernev a professor of marketing at Northwestern University.
The obesity paradox is the name given to the mismatch between the U.S. population paying more and more attention to eating healthy, while we keep getting heavier and heavier. Dr. Chandon’s findings come from experiments in the lab as well as field work conducted at both McDonald’s and Subway restaurants.
American’s obesity paradox causes us to over generalize the health benefits of a food labeled as “good for you”, following this up by choosing drinks, side dishes and even desserts that end up having up to 131% more calories overall. More often than not we reward our healthy choices with calorie laden drinks and other goodies, which may explain why the obesity epidemic in this country continues to rage.
According to Chandon, Americans have been seduced into overeating by the health halo effect associated with some foods and restaurants. During the informal survey of New Yorkers, subjects were asked to estimate the calories in a pictured meal — and were, in fact, fairly accurate, just a bit on the high side.
The other half of those surveyed were shown the same photo with crackers that were prominently labeled “trans fat free”. The presence of the “healthy” crackers skewed those calorie estimates in the wrong direction. The trans fat free label on the crackers provided a health halo that took away calories from the rest of the meal.
When the same informal survey was conducted on non-native Americans, the health halo had no effect. These subjects estimated the calorie total more accurately. They hadn’t been exposed to the trans fat debate
” It makes sense that New Yorkers would be more biased because of all the fuss in the city about trans fat,” Dr. Chandon told me. “It hasn’t been a big issue in most other places. Here in Europe there’s been virtually no discussion of banning trans fats.”
Experts recognize that people who eat at McDonald’s know very well what they’re in for, even with the more nutritious options currently on the menu.
Those at other restaurants, such as sub place (and promoted as healthy) Subway, are sure the sandwiches are healthy, and therefore have less calories than they actually do. Researchers found that customers at McDonald’s were more accurate at estimating the calories in their meals than the diners at Subway.
Feeling virtuous for eating “healthy” diners tend to order full calorie soda and deserts on top of the sandwich. The “healthy” meals eaten ended up averaging 56% more calories than meals that come from fast food staple McDonald’s.
What you need to do to help yourself is to stop and think if the healthy eating facts being advertised really apply to the food in question. Is that Italian sub, loaded with cold cuts, cheese and toppings really a low calorie option? It’s often best to think of your food choices not so much in terms of “good” or “bad”, but in terms of how many calories they will be putting into your body.