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‘Healthy’ foods can be packed with calories

Warm Chicken Salad

Warm Chicken Salad

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Updated: December 18, 2012 10:12AM

Not long ago, a friend who has struggled with his weight raved to me about these incredible cookies that were made with agave, coconut oil and gluten-free flour.

He had been eating them with abandon, thinking “they’re 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 effect. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research by Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink reported that people are considerably more likely to underestimate a meal’s calories when it comes from a restaurant claiming to be healthy.

People also order 131 percent more calories from drinks, sides and desserts with a “healthy” meal (such as a turkey sandwich) vs. one with the same calories typically considered “unhealthy” ( a burger).

Another study, at Cornell University, found chips and cookies labeled “organic” were perceived significantly lower in calories than non-organic ones.

The health halo effect is most likely contributing to our country’s growing weight problem.

All-natural juices and smoothies are sold in 600-calorie mega-portion cups, some salads have more fat and calories than a burger and fries, and some granola bars are more like candy bars.

Labels such as “gluten-free” and “organic” don’t necessarily mean healthy or lower in calories, although they often are 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” doesn’t 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, it’s 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 Millie’s famous homemade two-crust pie, slow down, enjoy and have just a little.

Gannett News Service

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