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In The News: Are You Calorie Blind?

Posted Dec 02 2008 1:06am
This New York Times article -- centered around a French marketing expert and American attitudes towards food and nutrition -- makes the following case: health claims like "trans fat free" and "low fat" create a "health halo," providing consumers with a false sense of security, and ultimately making them more susceptible to overeating.

When random Americans in a nutritionally conscious Brooklyn neighborhood were asked to estimate the number of calories in an Applebee's meal, they overshot by an average of 100 calories.

Good news so far.

However, when that meal included two crackers labeled "trans fat free," those additional 100 calories went seemingly unnoticed!

Furthermore, the total caloric count of that meal received lower estimates than that of the cracker-less photograph.

Meanwhile, "[foreign tourists in Times Square] correctly estimated that the meal with crackers had more calories than the meal without crackers."

Sounds simple (more food = more calories), but this French professor of marketing contends that health halos can blind us from seeing the larger picture.

The theory is that foreigners, most of whom stem from countries where nutrition and weight loss mainly concerns calories (rather than specific nutrients), are not deceived by what Marion Nestle calls "calorie distractors."

What is a calorie distractor, you ask?

Any kind of claim that makes you forget the total caloric impact of what you are eating (i.e.: tortilla chips containing a mere sprinkle of flaxseed and soy protein, or Gummi candies with as much ALA Omega-3 as four walnuts.)

The article also mentions a most fascinating experiment conducted by this French researcher and Brian Wansink last year.

"After giving people a chance to order either a Big Mac or a 12-inch Italian sandwich from Subway, the people ordering the subway sandwich [which has more caloric than a Big Mac] were more likely to add a large nondiet soda and cookies to the order, end[ing] up with meals averaging 56 percent more calories than the meals ordered from McDonald’s."

This article cements a lot of the concepts commonly discussed in this blog. Let's recap:

1. Forget about "good" and "bad" foods. Instead, focus on the big picture. A donut and coffee breakfast is not worth fretting about if it only happens once a week.

2. Above all, think calories. Whole wheat pasta covered in 500-calorie Alfredo sauce is not a healthier choice than that same amount of "white" pasta accompanied by 100 calories of marinara sauce.

3. Don't be fooled by claims of "a day's worth of vitamins" or "x milligrams of Omega 3" on boxes of high-calorie, sugar and sodium laden junk foods. You might as well down a Centrum pill in between bites of a King Size Snickers bar.

Remember -- the less processed your diet, the less you have to worry about scavenging the supermarket aisles for sugar-free, vitamin fortified, and low sugar Frankenfoods.
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