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.