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Watch Out For the “Healthy Halo”

You’ve probably had the experience of hearing someone place a lunch order like this – “I’ll have two double cheeseburgers, large fries, the big brownie, and a diet root beer.” The main part of the lunch – the burgers, fries and big brownie – is so obviously unhealthy that topping it off with a diet drink is almost like the punch line of a joke. You don’t really have to know much about nutrition to see that.

But, there’s a similar situation that’s much more subtle. “Wearing the healthy halo”, as some call this behavior, describes certain people who eat in a way they (and others) just assume to be healthy. The “halo” moniker is a little nutrition sarcasm reserved for those who tend to broadcast a “holier-than-thou” attitude about their assumed-to-be-healthy diet, but the important point is that assumptions are often wrong whether you’re snooty about it or not.

The best example is the green salad. It’s true that a green salad includes, by default, some healthy greens of some sort. But, simply including healthy food items doesn’t make an entire dish healthy (those double cheeseburgers probably had lettuce, tomato and pickled cucumber). I did a comparison in my book of two trips through the salad bar, where one salad came in at 376 calories and the other at 1,200. The thing is, when you’re adding items with a spoon they can all seem insignificant – a few sunflower seeds, some avocado, croutons, bacon bits, and a healthy dose of dressing don’t seem like much. But, if you’re struggling to manage your weight that extra 824 calories is exactly like – guess what – two double cheeseburgers calorie-wise.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a 1,200 calorie salad is not healthier than the cheeseburger meal – there’s more to healthy than just calories. But, I am suggesting that some of the assumptions we make about what’s healthy don’t necessarily qualify for angelic status without further examination. Salads, vegetarian, and organic are examples of words we tend to assume mean healthier without question. But, eventually it’s the numbers that matter.

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