Nutrient picking and becoming fixated on certain aspects of food is becoming a new type of disordered eating. Some psychologists are now coining this an eating disorder, Orthorexia. Fixating on food that is pure, natural or clean can create a poor relationship with food, that may not necessarily improve the overall health of the person. It’s now trendy to pick food products based on their perceived level of “healthiness”, for example; raw, natural, organic, grass fed, cholesterol free, sugar free, fat free, carb free and the list grows every day.
There are many examples of “healthy” food, that may not be as good as what you first think. Take for example 1/2cup (50g) of granola muesli. Granola is marketed as ‘healthy’ product, however it has the same amount of calories (210kcal) as a Crispy Cream donut. Calories aside, Granola muesli is also high in fat and sugar – so is a donut. Although, there is nothing wrong with eating either per se, they may not be food items to eat all the time as part of a staple diet.
Similarly, low calorie doesn’t necessarily mean holistically healthy. Meaning it may not be the best choice, due to eating behaviours after you eat it. A perfect example of this is low joule diet yogurts. You have probably seen the likes of Nestle Diet yogurt on supermarket shelves. It’s low calorie and made with Stevia, a natural sweetener, it’s high in protein and calcium. The only issue is it doesn’t provide much food satisfaction. The yogurt it watery, lacking in flavour and texture. In some cases when people resort to eating diet products, likelihood of binge eating afterwards or eating more to feel satisfied increases.
Rice cakes and Corn Thins are also common diet food items that has this effect. When you try to skimp on calories and eat next to nothing, it will backfire later on. You will compensate by eating more later, unless of course you have the willpower of a saint.
You think you are being nutritionally superior to your donut-eating friends, but are you really? Just because something is marketed as healthy doesn’t mean it is, nor does it give you permission to eat it in copious amounts.
What are health halo’s?
A health halo is a term used to describe food items marketed or that is perceived as healthy, they exist in supermarkets, in fast food commercials and restaurants.
Lets take a look at one of the most infamous fast food example of a health halo- Subway. This takeaway food chain has done a terrific marketing campaign to create a public perception that it is a “healthy” fast food option.
In the TV commercials, posters and radio ads,this fast good giant claims to make products from fresh ingredients and bake bread rolls on the premises. However, if you ever happen to visit a Subway store and ask them about certain ingredients, you would find out that vegetables are bought processed (pre washed, cut, chopped and pickled), the chicken comes from pre cooked frozen chicken pieces and the bread rolls are par baked before arrival. Not so fresh after all. Lets not let that get in the way of good marketing. Fresh = healthy, remember?
Mind you, Subway is one of the better choices between takeaway food alternatives, at least most products aren’t deep fried. However, if you add a creamy based sauces to your bread roll, you might as well eat those deep fried chips. Would you like ranch dressing or a thousand island?
In the past Subway used an internet sensation, Jared Fogle to push the idea that Subway was in fact healthy takeaway. In a large-scale TV marketing campaign Jarrod was used to promote Subway as a way to lose weight. Jarrod lost around 90kg from eating Subway for a number of months for every meal, every day. After his weight loss success he became the poster boy for Subway and has been used to drive the health halo that accompanies Subway products.
Did you know that a Subway foot long roll (410kcal, 20g fat) is about the same number of calories and fat at a Big Mac burger from Mc Donald’s (493kcal, 25g fat). Behind the smoke and mirrors of good marketing on Subways behalf, your so called “healthy choice” is not so healthy after all.
Supermarkets do this all the time, by using sneaky health claims on food packaging like; cholesterol free, 99% fat free and Natural, on high sugar content lollies. The average consumer can be easily fooled and here is why; only animal products contain cholesterol. Why would this health claim be relevant to put on lollies when they could never contain cholesterol in the first place. Cholesterol free is put on packaging to create the perception on a healthy product, even though its a nonsensical claim.
Lollies are also 100% sugar, which is a form of carbohydrate. So again, in this example the fat free claim is irrelevant, all lollies are fat free. This is a health halo. Consumers feel better about purchasing lollies because they are cholesterol free, fat free and natural, whilst simultaneously forgetting that lollies still contain calories and sugar.
What a Health Halo does is allow people to justify and rationalise that they are making good food choices. When in actual fact, it may be no better or marginally better than a non-healthy product. If a food item is labeled: fresh, organic, natural or sugar free, people automatically assume that “it’s good for my health”, and therefore eat more without consideration.
Many studies have documented that labels such as “low fat” or “low joule” can cause people to eat more because of the perceived healthiness of the meal. This often causes people to gain weight over time.
The truth about health halo’s
You can eat raw, natural, organic or sugar free food and still gain weight, Remember they are not calorie free. Health halo’s lure consumers into a false sense of security. You eat a foot-long Subway because it’s healthy, but then you allow yourself to wash it down with Coke and a sugary biscuit, because- well you made a better choice than Macca’s. Post rationalisation, we all do it.
The problem is, consumer demands drive the food industry to produce seemingly ‘healthy’ products. You may have noticed that gluten free, organic, natural and sugar free food are very trendy buzzwords found on food packages at the moment. It’s a food fashion, and unfortunately I think we will still be living out this phase for a few more years.
Supermarket chains are quite clever, they use consumer spending data to respond to demand. They put what we want on shelves, they profit from our trends, phases and health halo traps. Lets look at another example of this in a not so seeming brand. A few years ago Woolworths made a spin off brand ‘Macro’ of its usual Home Brand products. All of the products in the Macro brand have packaging that is either a pastel green or purple, colours often associated with wellness, it has a natural look and feel. Slap the tag “Organic” on fancy packaging and consumers are caught hook, line and sinker. Really, it’s the same raw oat product we have been eating for years just with a different packing and an organic label.
My key message here is regardless of the food fashion at the time, food and product choices can be complicated. Marketing is used to trick consumers into buying certain products. It is good to be aware of common tricks they use. In addition, I urge you to look at the item as a whole, not just single nutrients, product claims or celebrity endorsements. Use some basic nutrition knowledge and mix it with common sense.
How to eat healthier without relying on health halo’s?
Defining your eating purpose is a must. This is where a lot of people become stuck in a sea of conflicting messages. It is extremely difficult to want to save animals by following a vegan style of eating, save the plant by choosing organic, unlock all the nutrients out of food as raw food eater and lose weight all at the same time. Unless of course, you want to devote a large portion of your time and energy into your diet. Some people do, and that’s entirely your decision. For others, you may not want to or have the time to.
Find out what you value the most and what are your health goals. If you want weight loss you may want to concentrate on reducing the portions of your meals, and start eating more vegetables. Don’t worry about all the rest of the stuff.
Similarly, if you’re just after a healthy eating plan, concentrate on getting enough fresh fruit and veggies, whole grains and legumes. Instead of buying expensive organic products that I would argue contribute to little, to better health than regular non-organic food types. If you want to improve your health eventually your going to have to look at your lifestyle, make sustainable changes to your diet and move a little more.
Ditch the diets, that use health halo products, All a diet does is reduce your calorie intake, reduce processed foods and get you eating more veggies. If you do this you will lose weight. It really doesn’t matter which diet you do; Atkins, Paleo, Quit sugar, lemon detox etc. All diets show a weight rebound after the 2nd year. Out of all the people that lose weight only about 5% actually keep it off their entire lives.
Smart people don’t diet, you don’t need another weight loss diet and failed attempt. There are plenty of other ways to get fit and healthy without dieting. You need to learn about food to try to make informed choices for yourself, your lifestyle, your medical conditions or training goals. The non-dieting approach to nutrition is a far better way to improve your health and you don’t need fancy diet products to help you get there. A dietitian can help you learn these skills and do much more for you than just another meal plan. They give you an explanation about how your body works, provide you coaching around food choices and support around food.
Learning about your body and food triggers is the only way to make the best food decisions for you and ultimately providing you with the healthiest way to eat for you.
Have you got an example of health halo that really annoyed you?