Not long ago, a friend who has long struggled with his weight raved to me about these incredible cookies he discovered that were made with agave, coconut oil and gluten-free flour. He had been happily eating them with abandon, thinking theyre good for you! It pained me to break the news: Despite their arguably better ingredients, they were still cookies with the same calories, saturated fat and sugar as any other.
He had fallen prey to what has been dubbed a health halo. Paradoxically, these healthy cookies were worse for him than regular cookies, because their good-for-you glow was encouraging overeating.
Research backs up this health halo effect. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink reported that people are considerably more likely to underestimate the calories of a meal when it comes from a restaurant claiming to be healthy. People also wind up ordering 131 percent more calories worth of drinks, sides and desserts when they receive a healthy meal (such as a turkey sandwich) as compared with one containing the same calories, typically considered unhealthy (a burger). Another study, done at Cornell University, found that chips and cookies labeled organic were perceived to be significantly lower in calories than non-organic ones.
Foods with health halos abound in the marketplace and are most likely contributing to our countrys growing weight problem. There are all-natural juices and smoothies sold in 600-calorie mega-portion cups, salads with more fat and calories than a burger and fries, granola bars akin to candy bars, high-calorie yogurt-covered pretzels and gummy fruit snacks that barely have a dropper full of actual yogurt or fruit in them.
Then there are such labels as trans-fat free, gluten-free, vegan and organic, which are meaningful and important but dont necessarily mean healthful or lower in calories, although they are often perceived that way.
Luckily, it is possible to conquer this health halo bias. It mainly requires a simple awareness. Here are some guidelines:
Read a label for what it really is. Trans-fat free means the food contains no trans fat, but it could contain a lot of saturated fat. Gluten-free means just that. It does not mean healthier. Understanding what these labels really mean and being aware of the effect they can have on your perception will help you be less vulnerable to the halo effect.
Consider calories and portion sizes. Just because a food is healthy doesnt mean that it is low in calories or that you should eat a lot of it. Pay close attention to calories and portion sizes on packaged foods and check nutrition information available online or posted in chain eateries. Look at the serving sizes and nutrition information, if available, for recipes you make at home.
Use common sense. If it looks like a cookie, smells like a cookie and tastes like a cookie, its a cookie. Eat sweets and snacks sparingly, even if they are branded as healthier.
Eat mindfully. Pay attention to how hungry you really are and stop eating when you are satisfied. That could protect you from being swayed by packaging and other external cues. So slow down and savor your food.
Mindful eating is especially helpful now, as we enter the holiday season. Whether you are having an organic, gluten-free, trans-fat free healthy dessert or a slice of your Aunt Millies famous homemade two-crust pie, slow down, enjoy and just have a little.
Registered dietitian Ellie Krieger is host of Food Networks Healthy Appetite, which airs on the Cooking Channel.
© 2012 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.