The Health Halo Effect: Counteracting Candy with Diet Soda

On weekends I enjoy long hikes in the hills around my house. It relaxes me after the work week and my mind wanders to new ideas. Of course, it’s also good for my health. Mostly.

Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. I often go to lunch with my hiking companions after a few hours on the trail and even my healthiest acquaintances make calorie-laden dining choices. It feels like a reward after the strenuous exercise.

This phenomenon is called the health halo effect. When we do something healthy, we are more likely to follow it with something indulgent. In fact, we believe the indulgence is literally negated by the healthy acts.

Researchers have found people who order a healthy main dish are more likely to order higher calorie side dishes and desserts. Research also shows diners estimate a meal has fewer calories if a cheeseburger is paired with a green salad than if the same cheeseburger is served by itself. As the researchers report, it’s as if the diners believe that “putting lettuce on a plate can magically make calories disappear.”

Of course, there’s no magic trick. The healthy main dish and the green salad are examples of the halo effect. They cloud the diners’ judgment, making them feel like they are eating a healthy meal. The effect is even more pronounced with dieters, who presumably should know better as they are used to counting calories.

The healthy halo effect is not limited to poor choices on side dishes. Studies show shoppers who purchase chocolate for a charity will reward their own good deed by eating more chocolate. People who purchase a gift for others feel so generous they decide they should treat themselves to a gift. And shoppers who purchase a bargain feel so good about the deal that they buy more than they originally planned.

The next time you reach for a candy bar to go with your diet soda, remember the health halo effect. You’re only fooling yourself.

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8 Responses to The Health Halo Effect: Counteracting Candy with Diet Soda

  1. wartica November 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    I agree; two wrongs don’t make a right, so making more sound health choices, is the key to a better life:)

  2. Mark Smith November 11, 2012 at 4:06 am #

    Guilty as charged. Nice Post. So true!

  3. merptown November 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    Reblogged this on A Marathon to Lose and commented:
    Food for thought…

  4. Annie Hayward November 12, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    I used to hike 10-12 mi on wknds in Marin, for the same reasons you cited Jonathan. And, my hiking buddies did the same – while they were in good enough condition to hike the miles, they all stuffed themselves afterwards with the unhealthiest of food choices. I always thought that no amount of exercise would burn off the side of cow, plate of dairy with carbs, and greasy fries. Hence, most of them were chubby. I always brought my own fruit, salad & nuts on the trail, which earned me the nic name ‘salad lady’. Eating healthy these days require vigilance; I call it “defensive eating”. The other disturbing trend I am noticing is that ppl have simply given up, and accept that they are fat, and are in ‘grand’ company.

  5. wildsage2 November 12, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    It’s a bigger discussion. Is food about sustenance or pleasure or both? Though I’m not a customer of McDonalds or Subway, isn’t the reason we exercise is so we can order the side of fries?


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