Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Halo Effect. Your Thoughts About Healthy Foods Can Make or Break Your Weight Struggle.

Convinced of the health merits of such calorie-dense items as almonds, peanut butter and olive oil? You may feel more relaxed, more permissive about eating them as they’re nutrient rich and heart-healthy. After all, they’re good for you, right? So what’s the harm of eating them freely?

But then there’s the frustrated cry I hear most days, by seemingly educated dieters.
"But I eat so well, so healthily, I don't understand why I'm not able to lose weight”.

Thank you Jenny Wan-Chen Lee, a graduate student at Cornell University and her mentor Dr. Wansink for clarifying what’s going on here, confirming and quantifying what I’ve long experienced with my patients the past 25 years in practice. It’s called the halo effect.

What’s the Halo Effect?

Beautiful people are often attributed other positive features, simply because of their beauty. Their beauty radiates a sort of halo, influencing us to see them as smarter, more competent, and more likely to make a better president, for instance.

I enjoyed every morsel of this lavender flavored chocolate, and no,
it was not organic!
Growing evidence suggests that this halo effect may also apply to foods, ultimately influencing our eating. Research has shown that people tend to eat more calories at fast-food establishments claiming to serve "healthier" foods, versus the amount they’d have at a standard fast-food restaurant. Perceiving a food to be more nutritious, they’re less cautious and tend to overindulge. New research by Lee explored the halo effect around organic food, to see if people’s positive notions of organic items would lead them to perceive them as tastier or lower calorie.

“She tested this question by conducting a double-blind, controlled trial in which she asked 144 subjects at the local mall to compare what they thought were conventionally and organically produced chocolate sandwich cookies, plain yogurt, and potato chips. All of the products, however, were actually of the organic variety -- they were just labeled as being "regular" or "organic." Participants were then asked to rate each food for 10 different attributes (e.g., overall taste, perception of fat content) using a scale from 1 to 9. She also asked them to estimate the number of calories in each food item and how much they would be willing to pay.”

“Confirming Lee's health halo hypothesis, the subjects reported preferring almost all of the taste characteristics of the organically-labeled foods, even though they were actually identical to their conventionally-labeled counterparts. The foods labeled "organic" were also perceived to be significantly lower in calories and evoked a higher price tag. In addition, foods with the "organic" label were perceived as being lower in fat and higher in fiber. Overall, organically-labeled chips and cookies were considered to be more nutritious than their "non-organic" counterparts.”

From my experience, this halo effect can have a positive or a negative impact on eating, depending on your eating issue.

For those struggling with overeating, the halo effect contributes to eating in
excess. Here's how it happens. If you perceive a food as healthy or good for you, and therefore acceptable to eat, you tend to be less mindful of portions of these foods. So consider that cry I hear frequently from new patients presenting for weight management. Assessing their intake makes it crystal clear—they are simply eating too much of a good thing!

And the Atkins and Zone Diets have made the situation worse, as I see it. If you were indoctrinated with the false information that protein at any cost is the answer and that carbohydrate is the culprit for your weight problems, it’s not so easy to let it go.

 And so excessive portions of protein rich foods are eaten, leading to excessive calories and therefore worsening weight struggles.
It may look attractive in the display, but... 

Trainers at the gym, are also frequently at fault, for propagating nutrition bubbe meises, or old wive’s tales. “Eat more protein to lose weight”, they convince their clients, who return to my office frustrated by their escalating weight (not, I might add, the result of increasing muscle mass).

When I started practice in the 1980s, I remember patients proudly sharing their progress. They'd declare that they had moved from Oreos to Snackwell's fat free cookies, consuming 6 or 8 at a time because they were fat free. But they missed the part that they were not calorie free. These patients were sold on the merits of Snackwells having no fat, which in that era was considered a good thing.

This very same halo effect has its benefits for those dealing with
restrictive eating disorders. It is often easier to include foods seen as healthy, even if only because of their organic label. Yes, for some people, certified organic chocolate feels safer as a means to increase calories than many other items might be. Similarly, a food attribute such as fiber content often allows people to select that food even if it is higher in calories. It's an effect I encourage taking advantage of, as it allows clients to become more comfortable with a wider range of foods.

What does this halo effect mean for you?

If you struggle with restrictive eating, you may find it easier to incorporate foods with some perceived health benefit, something you can justify as good for you. This often makes change easier. This will also lead to greater variety with less deprivation. It can then lead to transference of trust—allowing you to change items, to swap them—recognizing they are equivalent in nutritional value for weight and energy balance. Ultimately, you’ll be more likely to manage your nutritional needs, expanding your food selection and increasing your intake.

For those who believe that simply eating healthy foods without regard to physical need shouldn't result in weight gain, think again. Excessive calories relative to need is what impacts weight. Organic, high fiber, whole grain, omega 3-containing foods may all have their merits. But weight management comes down to calories in versus calories out.


  1. Many years ago, my naturopath told me to cut out all sugars except if they were naturally occurring. I religiously read every food label, avoiding the dastardly product as much as possible...and I gained weight. I did actually realize what was happening: I felt horribly restricted. It wasn't that I was a sugar freak before the ban, but rather that I just felt angry about not having any access whatsoever to one of life's pleasures (chocolate, anyone?) and proceeded to take my anger out on the ban by eating more of what I was "allowed" to eat.

    BTW, love that "bubbe meises". I can't remember the last time I heard someone say that and I'm sure I've never read it on the internet!

    As usual, a great post. A groisse dank!

  2. I'm a new reader to this blog. This is my first comment.

    I think the halo effect can be defeated if you focus on how your body feels, hunger levels and while you are eating and after you've eaten. Also, removing the judgement of 'good' verses 'bad' food.

    I must say I really struggle with the 'gentle' nutrition and not getting obsessed and then start restrictive controlling thinking.

    Must say, I didn't love the last line in the post, just very diet like and was a trigger for me.

    Look forward to reading more.


  3. Excellent post and excellent comment from NewMe...I agree that the Halo Effect can have a positive "come hither" message when one is afraid to try new foods...As an older anorexic in recovery (from age 43 to now ..nearly 51)..the idea that a formerly "forbidden food" can be considered healthy definitely helps in approaching it...Thank you for reiterating that we need to banish the GOOD FOOD/BAD FOOD schemas..and focus on mindful nourishment. I tried the protein-no starchy carbs...refined anything approach...and while "angry" at not having my cake and eating it too, I did NOT increase my caloric intake...restricting under 800 per day PLUS jogging 45 minutes or hiking for two hours...and STILL THE SCALE showed the same numbers...My metabolism suffered greatly, accustomed as it was to very low calories in for the calories I do question the last sentence, although it seems so evident...Is it POSSIBLE for a metabolism to be "ruined" or damaged after lengthy restriction? Or does it simply take much time and patience for the "calories in/calories expended" formula to work again..I am definitely in the "Calorie Deficit" area, I know I should not be, so is the last phrase not applicable to everyone? Thank you for your important work and writings.

  4. Ok, time for some clarification in response to your wonderful comments.
    (This is the danger in writing to a mixed audience, so to speak. I do apologize about any triggering statements.)
    So here goes..
    Restrictive eaters take note: when you are consuming significantly less than your body needs to function (particularly when you are still demanding much output from activity) your body will not follow the basic rule I describe. Metabolic rate does slow, which explains the slowed or lack of continued weight loss in spite of significantly inadequate fuel. It IS reversible, and the sooner you reverse it the better. Over time with severe restriction, you will also experience a loss of muscle mass which will further decrease metabolic rate. The remedy is eating enough! Metabolic rate picks up rather promptly. And once you are healthy enough, you can begin to increase lost muscle mass with adequate fuel and exercise. But the food must increase first.

    Regarding my comment about healthy food and the inevitable consequence resulting form excessive eating, remember that it is not the food item that is the issue, but the quantity RELATIVE TO YOUR NEED. Considering a food healthy has much value for restrictive eaters. I just need to be 100% honest with my readers, that anything in excess for an individual's needs will impact weight. But remember, for many readers that's a favorable outcome. It may be easier to justify the foods and the weight gain necessary when you perceive the items as having nutritional value.

    A long winded response, but I hope that clarifies. Sorry for any distress I caused!

  5. I need to clarify...I went from 31 kilos to nearly 59 kilos in twelve short months out of hospital for anorexia treatment..and this by trying to eat from all food groups in correct portions for my height ( 5'2") and age (50)..Although my menses have returned during the past five months(they had been absent for seven years) is as if my metabolism does not wish to relinquish staying in "starvation mode" for fear of another period of famine...I NEVER want to go back restrict, but it is easy to fall prey to the Halo Effect of High protein/low starch schemas or theories about metabolic disfunction in certain populations with regards to sugars and starchy carbohydrates (I'm thinking of Gary Taubes manifestos). Is it indeed possible that those with normally functioning metabolisms can eat carbs, proteins and lipides in appropriate quantities with no problems..whereas others with long histories of restriction or eating disorders have effectively disrupted their insulin regulation/metabolic capacities to the point where they simply cannot eat as "a normal person would" (read: with carbs)? I want to believe in the body's capacity to return to a state of normalcy...When does the body finally believe that adequate nourishment WILL be provided on a regular basis...and quit storing,stocking and saving for a rainy day? Thank you for your ever-pertinent and sage words.

  6. First, you are to be commended, Anon, for your strength in pushing for recovery! And yes, yes,yes, carbs are 100% fine, regardless of your history. I could only guess that if in fact you are hypo-metabolic, so to speak, it could be form a reduced muscle mass from years of starvation. Consider seeking help from someone well versed with EDz on weight training (as long as you maintain an adequate intake and weight range and are medically stable and are very cautious in and not at risk of compulsive exercise!)

    It may also be that for your body a healthy weight is higher than what you may want to accept. As I don't know details of your situation, please consult some experts in your area for more support and guidance.
    Hope this helps.

  7. This helps greatly...Thank you for your generous sharing of is aiding me immensely in dealing with the metabolic morphing and the tsunami of weight gain that, my ED team tells me is the direct result of years of restriction. They do tell me that the redistribution of muscle, water and fat will eventually even out...and although they cannot provide an exact time line for could take years for my body to "trust again"...I do hope I will be able to someday convince it to burn normally if I continue to eat normally...Unfortunately, comparisons can be crushing, and I have an identical twin sister who, without thinking about it, always stays in the 105 to 107 pound range..I also was in this range when I was normal and pre-anorexic (we are both near 5'2")and 50 years of age...Perhaps the seven plus years of anorexia have directed my body to "up" its set-point as a protection mechanism...Any thoughts? (So sorry to bother you with this, but my french team admits to not having the experience to address this question)...Thank you in advance for any further enlightenment!

  8. I am struggling to appreciate the concept of "food first, then exercise." I think there is a way for me to exercise, gain strength as well as gain weight. It seems simple and rational.

  9. If there's not enough fuel and your body is requiring it for exercise, your body's going to fight you and will certainly not build the very muscle you hope to strengthen.

  10. It's where a halo (ring) appears around something.

    For example, in certain cold conditions, it looks like there is a faint rainbow ring around the moon. This is a halo effect. It's caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere diverting the light.