Let’s play a game

Full disclosure: I love chocolate peanut butter cups. Yes, I know I’m a dietitian but I’m also a human being who likes things that are delicious so…

Anyways, below are two brands of chocolate peanut butter cups that you can find at your local grocery store. One is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and the other is Justin’s Organic Peanut Butter Cups.

reeses-pb-cups-wrapper-small         organic-peanut-butter-cup

Based off of the labels, which one would you think is healthier? If you guessed the Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups as the healthier choice, you my friend just exhibited the phenomenon called the health halo effect. Let me explain.

The Health Halo Effect

The health halo effect is defined as, “A phenomenon in which there is a halo effect on certain foods or brands, causing them to be perceived as healthy. The health halo oftentimes results in increased consumption of the product in the “halo.” The health halo has had increased media attention as increased “healthy” options are being marketed. (1).”

Basically, if a food is marketed as healthier, you are likely to eat more of it. This phenomenon is actually more common than you think. There actually have been a few studies that have looked into this.

For instance, this study found that consumers chose beverages, side dishes, and desserts containing up to 131% more calories when the main dish was marketed to them as “healthy” even though the “healthy” dish contained more calories than the “unhealthy” dish.

As you can see, the simple illusion of something being healthier actually effects the amount that you eat. That can be a problem if you main goal is fat loss.

Back to our game

Alright, let’s circle back to our game at the beginning. Most people would guess the Justin’s option was the healthier choice because it has the buzzword “organic” on the front of the package. The food industry has done a pretty good job making it seem that organic = healthy.

When you flip over the package though and compare the nutrition facts to Reese’s, you’ll most likely be surprised to see that they practically the same.

reeses-back         justins-back

As you can see, both brands are the pretty much exactly the same from a calorie and macronutrient standpoint. So no, choosing the Justin’s option does not mean you can eat 6 peanut butter cups and expect to reach your fat loss goals simply because it is organic.

Here are a few other examples.

Protein Infused Products

I’ve already talked about why increasing protein in your diet is never a bad thing if your goal is fat loss. With that being said, it seems like food companies are running wild with this and incorporating protein into literally everything. Like the other day I saw this.


Um, what?

Why on earth would you want protein beer? If this is for real, it is literally one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard of. Nonetheless, I digress. With this new found obsession with protein, it is easy to assume that just cause a food is marketed as having protein, it automatically means it’s healthier. Is that the case though? Let’s compare a popular protein bar with a Snickers bar.

met-rx-big100-chocolate-chip-cookie-dough-b1121112       snickers

Again, which do you think has fewer calories? Let’s take a look.

big-100-nutrition         snickers-nutrition

Well look at that! The Big 100 protein bar has 120 more calories than the Snickers bar and has about the same amount of sugar. Again, if your goals are fat loss, the extra 120 calories can make or break your calorie deficit.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are actually a few protein bars out there that are quite calorie and macronutrient friendly. My rule of thumb for selecting protein bars is to look for ones that are 250 calories or less and have at least 20 g of protein.

Low-fat foods

The buzzword low fat has a similar effect as above. When people see the term low-fat attached to a food, they assume it’s healthier and therefore they can eat more of it. This, again, has been proven by science.

A review done in 2006 found that when snack foods were labeled low fat, participants ate more than when the food was labeled regular. The researchers then concluded that when we see low fat, we have reduced guilt about eating more than we should.

Even though it may seem like the healthier choice, most low fat or reduced fat foods are actually pretty similar in caloric content to their full fat counterpart. For instance, let’s compare reduced fat Oreo’s with normal Oreo’s.

reduced-fat         oreo-facts

Oh wow! The reduced fat Oreo’s are 10 calories less than the normal fat Oreo’s. What a significant difference!

Gluten-free foods

Before people get all bent out of shape about this, I’m not saying going gluten-free is bad. Gluten-free diets are essential for those who suffer from Celiac disease. Also, some people report they feel better going gluten-free. With that being said, those of you who are going gluten-free just to lose weight or because it seems “healthier” are again committing the health halo effect. Several studies have looked into this.

For instance, this study compared the risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome between those without Celiac disease who followed a gluten-free diet and the general population. The researchers found that there were no significant differences in risk for heart disease and metabolic syndrome in the group that followed the gluten-free diet compared to the general population.  Another study found that long term consumption gluten was not associated with risk for cardiovascular disease.

Also, if you ever compare a gluten free product to it’s gluten containing counterpart, you will typically find that they are very similar in caloric content just like low fat products and their full fat counterparts. Therefore, the swap often times won’t assist you very much with fat loss. Plus, have you ever tried gluten-free pretzels?


Wrapping it all up

To sum it all up, just because a food may be advertised as healthy doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Just because a food has certain buzzwords on the packaging doesn’t make it calorie free. You still have to be mindful of portion sizes if your goal is fat loss.

Want more information about nutrition counseling and our Fuel program? Contact one of our registered dietitian nutritionists today!

Written by: Jesus Hernandez RDN, LD

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