Health Food Halo

As you stroll down the grocery store aisles, it’s impossible to ignore the copious amounts of “health foods” – organic cookies, fat-free ranch and sugar-free ice cream – just to name a few. At first glance, it seems like these items would be saviors for those trying to lose weight. Who doesn’t want to have their cake and eat it, too?

Well, you can eat cake and lose weight, but not because the ingredients are organic. The fact that they’re organic might actually make you fatter.

This is called the health food halo effect. You buy a healthier alternative that is sugar-free because everyone “knows” sugar is bad for you. So far, so good. The difference is, instead of enjoying the indulgence in moderation, you eat more of this food because it’s supposedly healthy. You could have had three normal Oreos for 150 calories, but instead chose the low-fat Oreos and engulfed the entire row for a much bigger calorie cost.

These health foods give the illusion that the quantity doesn’t matter and common sense can go out the window. Quantity does matter and while our minds may be tricked by witty marketing, our bodies respond to calories and nutrients. It’s food psychology, and it works, because just about everyone is looking for ways to lose weight.

This effect is also found while eating out. Compare food choices at Subway to McDonald’s. Both restaurants offer cookies as a dessert, but how many people buy a cookie at McDonald’s? Hardly any, because it’s obvious this isn’t the best meal we could be having, and we play mental collateral damage.

On the other hand, how many people buy cookies at Subway? Now that you think about it, quite a bit. We rationalize to ourselves that since we made the good choice opting for Subway, we should reward ourselves with two birthday cake cookies. All of a sudden, it wasn’t such a great decision after all. Many people actually end up eating more calories at Subway.

The same psychology is used at Orange Leaf. “Frozen yogurt is healthier than ice cream, grab me the large container. I’m pouring M&M’s on this, too.”

The idea isn’t to avoid these foods or places, but to understand that they aren’t magical. If you aren’t mindful your health consciousness could actually backfire. If you’re opting for low-fat ranch, that is great, just don’t compensate by having twice as much.