Nice halo, fatty

Pax Arcana

fat_jesusWe already know that it’s your brain that makes you fat, but this article in the Times takes things one step further. Basically it’s a primer on how the “health halo” that surrounds certain foods can blind us to the ill effects of overeating in general.

To assess the degree to which the “health halo” affects our perception, John Tierney cruised around New York with Pierre Chandon, a French scientist who has been studying the American obesity paradox (the more we pay attention to the kinds of foods we eat, the fatter we get).

The problem, it seems, is that our rational brains are easily scrambled by clever marketing and popular buzz. Here’s the principal in action:

Half of the 40 people surveyed were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi. (You can see it for yourself at TierneyLab.) On average, they estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink.

The other half of the Park Slopers were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, bringing it to 1,034 calories, but their presence skewed people’s estimates in the opposite direction. The average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.

Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal.

Food: It’s got calories

The same experiment tested on foreign tourists in New York yielded the exact opposite results, as they correctly estimated that adding food to a meal actually INCREASES its calorie count.

Anyway, the problem of the health halo leads us to make all kinds of ill-informed decisions about what we eat. Chandon found that people who order at Subway — instead of McDonald’s — tend to underestimate the calories contained in a typical sandwich, and are therefore more likely to order cookies or Doritos on the side. Or that time I ate a salad and then drank a gallon of melted Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. Why was it melted, you ask? Have you ever tried to eat a gallon of frozen ice cream? The headaches are intolerable!

Health Halo Can Hide the Calories [NYT]


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