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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.
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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.