The Situationist

The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2008

Tierney Lab ImageEarlier this week, John Tierney had a nice article, “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories,” in the New York Times about the situation of eating.  Here are some excerpts.

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If you’re a well-informed, health-conscious New Yorker who has put on some unwanted pounds in the past year, it might not be entirely your fault. Here’s a possible alibi: The health halo made you do it.

I offer this alibi after an experiment on New Yorkers that I conducted with Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox. Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?

Dr. Chandon’s answer, derived from laboratory experiments as well as field work at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, is that Americans have been seduced into overeating by the so-called health halo associated with certain foods and restaurants. His research made me wonder if New Yorkers were particularly vulnerable to this problem, and I asked him to help me investigate.

Our collaboration began in a nutritionally correct neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose celebrated food co-op has a mission statement to sell “organic, minimally processed and healthful foods.” I hit the streets with two questionnaires designed by Dr. Chandon, a professor of marketing at the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. 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. . . . 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.

* * *

To read the entire article, which includes further discussion of this experiment and also summarizes some additional, related research, click here.  For additional related work by John Tierney, visit the TierneyLab.

For other Situationist posts on the situation of eating and obesity, click here. The American obesity paradox is explored at some length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.

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4 Responses to “The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins”

  1. This is a good article.

    My mother, a nurse, has told me about a similar, but far more lethal, mistake that her patients often make. People who have diabetes need to avoid sugary foods, and their doctors and nurses try to teach them how to do this. But these people often buy foods that are labeled ‘Low-Fat’, thinking that it will be healthier. This is exactly wrong. Processed foods with a ‘Low-Fat’ label will almost always contain extra sugar to make up for the loss of the fat. Diabetic people should be eating foods with more fat and less sugar, but a belief that ‘Low-Fat’ means ‘healthy’ causes these patients to harm themselves.

  2. [...] for someone to blame for weight gain? How about “The health halo made you do it.” Like this post? Spread the word! delicious digg google stumbleupon technorati [...]

  3. Ellie said

    The biggest favor we can do for people is to teach them that the front of the package is AN ADVERTISEMENT. Unlike many products, we are lucky that food requires a label with exact ingredients and calories listed. Geez, turn the package over! I’m a veterinary nurse and my cat kept gaining weight – I was shocked to realize that dry food has almost twice the number of calories that wet food does (in the food I feed my cat). It’s a real no-brainer if we could just spread the word.

  4. [...] The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins [...]

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