Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Halo Effect

Beware of the Halo Effect.  This is a term that I came across by health expert JJ Virgin when she was talking about health food stores.  In this article, it refers to several situations centered on food that can sabotage your healthy eating habits.   For example:

If it’s sold at a health food store, it must be good me.  Well, I’ve been to a number of natural foods stores that have entire aisles devoted to crunchy snack foods like potato or corn chips, pretzels, and crackers.  Are they any better for you than what you would find at your local grocery store?  Maybe, and if so, only slightly.    

Why?  Because they’re still snack foods that tend to be made with starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, or flours made from ground grains, added sugar and salt.  And for the most part, that’s it.   The nutrient value is low, but the tendency to overdo it on them is high.  You know the old saying for Lay’s Potato Chips: ‘You can’t eat just one…’

What’s healthier about them?  They are sometimes made with organic corn or potatoes, and slightly healthier oils like sunflower.   Crackers may be made with organic, whole grain flours and use alternative sweeteners to high fructose corn syrup.   The key with any of these snack foods is to eat them occasionally and in small quantities.

Because it’s good for me, I can eat as much of it as I want.  Overdoing anything, even water, can have detrimental affects.  But let’s look at a food like organic almond butter.  Yes, it’s made with organic almonds with no added unhealthy fats or sugar.  But just two tablespoons can have 190 calories and 16 grams of fat.  If you’re putting a thick layer onto your toast or regularly eating it out of the jar with a spoon, you will easily pack on the pounds. 

As much as I don’t agree with the concept ‘a calorie is a calorie’, calories do exist and they do count.  Even an apple has calories and they can add up when you don’t pay attention to portion size.  No matter what you’re eating, more will mean more calories and not necessarily more benefits.  

Because it’s got healthy ingredients in it, it’s all good.  I think of this concept as the ‘Good by Association’ factor.  The other day, I was at Starbuck’s having a Tazo Vanilla Rooibos tea and I picked up one of their ‘Nutrition by the Cup’ brochures.  It lists nutrition data for their beverages.  They have four Tazo latte drinks listed.  A tall Tazo Green Tea Latte with 2% milk has 260 calories versus their Full-Leaf and Full-Leaf Red Tea Lattes that both have 150 calories.  What’s the difference?  The Green Tea version has an additional two grams of fat and sixteen grams of sugar. 

Would you suspect the huge difference when choosing between the three?  I sure wouldn’t.  And if I didn’t know, I would probably go with the green tea drink, thinking it was healthier.   Their Chai Latte fell between the two groups.  And by the way, my vanilla rooibos tea, which I enjoy without anything added, has zero calories.  

The bottom line is that you must be a diligent food detective when choosing your meals, snacks, and beverages.  A restaurant salad may be perfectly healthy until the heavy dressing full of sugar is added and a fruit smoothie advertised as ‘made with real fruit’ may have unhealthy and maybe even unnecessary ingredients lurking in the cup. 

To me, being picky about the contents is even more important than worrying about the calories, because when you choose the right foods, the calories will naturally take care of themselves.   Of course, this leads to the misguided concept that more is better.  When it comes to food, more is simply more. 

Our bodies only need and can only handle a predetermined amount of fuel and nutrients at any given time, depending on our genetics, our metabolism, and our level of activity.  These values are unique for each of us and it takes trial and error to figure this out.  Giving it more than it requires, no matter how good it may be, will only lead to storage, i.e., added fat.  And nobody wants that…

Photo courtesy of digitalart

Linda DiBella, Ph.D., is a Holistic Health Coach who helps her clients to make diet and lifestyle changes that help them lose weight, increase their energy, eliminate their cravings for unhealthy foods, sleep better, and reverse disease naturally.  Get her free report, "Have you got the guts? Why gut health is so important to overall health".  

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