Are You Wearing a “Health Halo”? Smoothies, Nuts, and Non-GMO Foods.


It’s pretty interesting how much the “health halo effect”[1] has infiltrated our lives. Brian Wansink, a researcher at Cornell, has studied this and found that “healthful” claims on foods really do get people to eat more. In one of his studies, people who were given a low-fat snack (and told that the snack was low fat) ate 90 more calories than people given a regular snack.

Other researchers have found that when people order a healthful entrée at a restaurant, they’re more likely to order a high-calorie side dish or dessert. Wansink and colleagues claim that people often feel a sense of “entitlement” upon choosing a healthful food, which, in turn, may lead them to unknowingly consume more calories. A study at the University of Chicago revealed that people felt hungry after eating a food that was labeled “healthy” while people who ate a food labeled “tasty” felt more satiated. Does eating healthy food cause one to eat more? That’s the conclusion of these researchers. What’s been your experience?

This week, I’ll highlight a few more examples of the health halo effect that drives and affects our food behaviors.

Non-GMO. “GMO” stands for genetically-modified organisms. GMO foods have been inserted with a gene from an unrelated species to give that food a specific characteristic, such as resistance to insects or a higher level of a vitamin, for example. There’s much debate going on about this issue, and I’ve written previously about this topic[2]. You may or may not have strong feelings about eating GMO foods.

The health halo effect around foods labeled “non-GMO” is similar to foods labeled “organic”: The implication is that a non-GMO food is healthy or good for you. Now, certain brands of food are reportedly “GMO-free.” These include: Arrowhead Mills, Eden Foods, Cascadian Farms, Bob’s Red Mill, Amy’s Kitchen, Whole Foods store brands, and many more. But is Amy’s Kitchen frozen Macaroni & Cheese, weighing in with 10 grams of saturated fat and 640 milligrams of sodium, really “good” for you? Or better for you than another brand of mac and cheese?

Would you be likely to eat more of the non-GMO foods because they are labeled as such? Remember that the calories, carbs, saturated fat, and sodium are still present. Some of these products may indeed be more nutritious, whereas others will not be. By the way, be careful not to confuse “non-GMO” with “organic.” The terms are not synonymous — organic foods generally cannot contain GMOs, but non-GMO foods are not necessarily organic.

Smoothies. Ahh… an ice-cold smoothie on a hot summer day. What better way to cool off and also drink something that’s good for you, too. Or is it? Smoothies are everywhere — grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and coffee shops. Plus, you can easily whip up your own at home. Granted, some smoothies contain healthful ingredients, such as fresh fruit, greens (kale smoothie, anyone?), soy or almond milk, peanut butter, or yogurt, for example.

But others contain chocolate, sugar, ice cream, and flavored syrup. Consider the 16-ounce Starbucks Strawberry Smoothie. It’s low in fat, but it packs 300 calories and 60 grams of carbohydrate. A 20-ounce Orange Julius Cocoa Latte Swirl tops it off at 680 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 135 grams of carbohydrate! A 16-ounce Jamba Juice Apple ’n Greens smoothie weighs in at 250 calories and 60 grams of carbohydrate. Better, but still not something you’d want to gulp down regularly. These smoothies can expand your waistline and raise your blood sugar if you’re not careful. Drink with caution.

Nuts. I’ve[3] written[4] a lot[5] about nuts and their health benefits. I happen to love almonds and eat a handful every day. Nuts can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol; they contain protein and fiber which can help make you feel full and help even out blood sugar levels; and they contain antioxidants that help fight inflammation[6]. Nuts are tasty, too, so it’s very easy to keep eating them.

The possible downside of nuts is the fact that they’re not exactly a low-calorie food. One-half cup of whole almonds contains roughly 400 calories and 36 grams of fat. Same goes for salted peanuts, which also come with 600 milligrams of sodium. While nuts can definitely be a part of a heart-healthy and/or weight-reducing eating plan, you still need to watch your portion.

I could go on and describe many more foods and nutrition claims that can cause the health halo effect. The point is to go beyond the hype. Read labels, watch portions, and try not to get duped into eating more of something because of a perceived notion of it being good for you (unless you’re eating vegetables!).

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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