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The Health Halo Effect

A few months ago, I was working with a patient who wanted to lose 30 pounds. She was frustrated and could not understand why she was not losing weight because she was eating whole, organic, gluten-free foods. As our discussion continued it was evident she had abandon portion control because she was eating “healthy.”   She had become a victim of the “health halo” effect.

When we eat foods that are labeled “healthy” we seem to think we can eat as much as we want of these foods because they are good for us. Research has consistently shown when people consume foods that are perceived as being healthy; they often overindulge and consume more total calories.  Our perception is that these “healthy” foods are lower in calories. Take smoothies for instance, I found a recipe for an “energy boosting, immune fighting” smoothie that had over 700 calories and 50 grams of fat.  Granted the smoothie was packed with nutrients but it was also packed with calories.  When it comes to managing our weight- calories still do count. If this smoothie is consumed as a meal replacement, I could see it having a place in someone’s diet but the problem is we drink the smoothies in addition to eating a meal.

Nuts are another halo food.  They are full of healthy fats, fiber, vitamin E, and calories.  A handful of mixed nuts (approximately 1 oz) has 172 calories. One handful is not bad but we tend to have a handful here and a handful there racking up the total caloric intake to 400-500 additional calories.

Dried fruits, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, dark chocolate and protein bars are health halo culprits too. Dried fruits are much higher in calories by volume than fresh.  Avocados are heart healthy and packed full of nutrition but are a concentrated source of calories.  Half of an average avocado is approximately 115 calories. Use avocado as a replacement for mayo or butter on a sandwich instead of eating them on their own.  Protein bars can be an excellent source of nutrition but many of us eat them as snacks and not for their real intent which is to fuel sport-minded, active people.  Many of the bars have over 200 calories.  Before you bite into your next protein bar ask yourself if you have burned 200 calories or are planning to through physical activity.  Protein bars can be excellent meal replacements, but that means it’s your meal.

Other health halo foods to be aware of are those labeled low fat, fat free, sugar-free, no sugar added, organic, gluten free, and natural.  These terms do not necessarily mean those foods are lower in calories than the regular version.

A major pitfall of health halos is that we tend to add these foods to our diet rather than using them to replace the “junk” foods. When it comes down to it, calorie balance matters most when managing your weight. Choosing quality foods is very important for your health but quantity still matters. Regardless of the amount of beneficial nutrients the foods may have, they still contribute calories. Don’t be fooled by the “health halo” be WeightSmart.

3 comments on “The Health Halo Effect

  1. I appreciate this topic. I have recently changed my diet and stopped eating processed junk food. High quality foods like nuts and avocados have become my staples along with veggies, meat, seeds, eggs and healthy fats. After loosing 110 pounds since January 2018, I am only 7.5 pounds to my goal weight.

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