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Health halo effect

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 12:50 p.m. CDT

Can the onslaught of low-fat, fat free or otherwise “healthy” foods that continue to appear on grocery store shelves be partly to blame for rising obesity rates? Some researchers say yes.

It’s called the health halo effect. Simply put, the health halo effect leads people to overestimate the overall healthfulness of a food based on a health claim. Health halos are proven to cause people to eat more food than they intended. For example, studies have shown that people eat far more low-fat foods than they do traditional versions.

So, how do you not fall prey to the hype? The following tips should help.

Trans fat

Trans fat-free foods generally contain the same amount, or more, total fat and saturated fat as foods that do not have trans fat. Continue to avoid trans fats but don’t overlook the total fat and saturated fat content of foods.

Cholesterol

Only foods that are animal based (meat, poultry, eggs, cream and cheese) contain cholesterol. Plant based foods such as peanut butter have always been cholesterol free. A low cholesterol label doesn’t mean a thing unless it’s describing a food that contains animal products.

Multigrain

Multigrain foods are not necessarily higher in fiber. For instance, 12-grain breads are not high in fiber if enriched or refined grains are listed as the first ingredient. Multigrain simply means more than one grain has been used in the product. Look for the word “whole” to describe the grains.

High-fiber foods

Yogurt, juice, crackers, cereal bars and other foods that are billed as “high fiber” do not necessarily contain the same amount of nutrition as found in whole foods that have naturally occurring fiber. Products fortified with fiber use isolated fibers that do not offer the same health benefits. Choose fruits, vegetables, grains and beans to get your fiber quota.

Sugar

A food that contains no high-fructose corn syrup usually contains at least as much total sugar as other similar products. Both forms of sugar are void of any nutrients.

All-natural

“All-natural” means absolutely nothing. All-natural maple syrup and honey contain as many calories and as much sugar as table sugar.

Salt

Sea salt contains as much sodium ounce for ounce as table salt. You only benefit if you can use less because of a unique flavor or larger crystals. The only way to know if processed foods made with sea salt — such as canned soup — are more healthful is to check labels carefully.

Snack foods

Snack foods, such as fruit chews, that are fortified with vitamins (most often vitamin C) are not worth the extra cost. Even if they contain “real fruit juice” they are not nutritionally equivalent to a piece of fresh fruit. Fresh fruit always is the better choice.

So what’s the bottom line? Be careful not to judge a food based on one nutrient or characteristic. Enjoy real food, and be mindful when eating so portions don’t get out of hand.

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