Why Some Health Foods Aren't So Healthy After All

Why Some Health Foods Aren't So Healthy After All

Are kale chips and mango smoothies a smart choice? Don't be fooled by the "health halo" warns food sociologist Dina Rose.

Noshing on healthy foods is a healthy eating habit, right? Wrong—at least some of the time.

For starters, people assume many foods are healthier than they really are because they contain one or two nutritious ingredients. Researchers call this the “health halo” effect.

Each serving of Terra Sweet Potato Chips has more calories (160 versus 140), more fat (11 grams versus eight grams), more sugar (three grams versus less than one gram), and less protein (one gram versus two grams) than the same-size serving of Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Potato Chips.

One-half cup of Breyers Natural Vanilla Ice cream has 14 grams of sugar. Measuring by volume, a comparable serving of Dannon All Natural Vanilla Yogurt has around 17 grams of sugar.

One 12-ounce Odwalla Mango Tango Fruit Smoothie has more sugar than a 12-ounce serving of Coca-Cola (44 g versus 39 g), and as much sugar as nine Oreo cookies.

On the surface, this last comparison doesn’t seem fair. The Oreos don’t have a lot going for them, and the smoothie has its “health halo”—real fruit. But let’s just say you ate those nine Oreos. You’d take in two more grams of protein and two more grams of fiber than if you drank the entire smoothie. Of course, you’d also take in twice the calories. So which is the healthier snack?

Here’s a radical thought: it’s not whether you choose the smoothie or the Oreos that matters. What matters is how you fit smoothies (and the Oreos if you like) into your overall diet. What’s more, the presence (or absence) of a single nutrient shouldn’t sway your decision, because it’s the total food experience that shapes your habits. Here’s what studies show:

People tend to eat more food when they think what they are eating is healthy. Researchers gave two groups of people identical granola but told one group that the granola was low in fat. The “low fat” granola group consumed 21 percent more calories than the “regular” granola group.

People regularly underestimate the number of calories they consume from beverages by about 30 percent.

Whole fruit satisfies hunger more than either fruit purees or fruit juice. People regularly attribute the satisfaction factor to fiber: it is present in full force in whole fruit but can be reduced significantly by juicing. One study, however, made apples, applesauce, and apple juice “fiber equivalent” by adding fiber to the juice and then compared how well they curbed people’s hunger. The results didn’t change, and the researchers concluded that whole apples increase satiation (and reduce subsequent calorie consumption) the most.

Emerging evidence shows that eating a diet high in sugar, salt, and fat produces changes in people’s brain chemistry in a way that mimics drug addiction—and this is true even if those foods high in sugar, salt, and/or fat also have “redeeming” nutritious qualities.

When it comes to teaching kids to eat right there is another compelling reason to be cautious about overusing “health halo” foods. From a habits perspective, regularly eating sweetened foods creates a desire for other sweetened foods—not for items like broccoli.

Scientists call this phenomenon a Pervasive Palate Preference: Once children develop a preference for sugar, fat, and salt in their food, they get locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of preferring these kinds of foods.

This is one way to understand why many children reject fruits and vegetables. They don’t taste like the foods kids are used to eating. One study of “child-friendly” foods found that 70 percent have too much sugar, 23 percent have too much fat, and 17 percent have too much salt.

Did you know that an ounce of Annie’s Bunnies has more than 50 percent more sodium than an ounce of Cape Cod Kettle Cooked Potato Chips (230 milligrams versus 150 milligrams)? Or that even a “healthy” cracker like Kashi Original 7 Grain Snack Cracker is no sodium sloucher? An ounce of them packs a 160-milligram punch.

A diet full of these kinds of foods pushes kids’ taste buds away from apples and asparagus and toward a lifelong preference for sweets and treats.

It is easy to see why healthy foods can produce unhealthy eating habits. Habits always trump nutrition when it comes to shaping how people eat. That’s why even when you make a food more healthy, that doesn’t change how frequently you should eat it.

Even kale chips—which, by the way, can have more than 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce, depending on the brand you buy or whether you make them at home—should be eaten only intermittently. Kale chips are crunchy, salty snacks—just like chips. Giving yourself a free pass to eat as many as you want won’t just nurse your snacking habit, it will influence your overall pattern of eating.

It’s a harsh (and sad) fact, but sometimes that’s the way the kale chip crumbles.

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