AICR HealthTalk: What is a Health Halo?

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AICR Health Talk is a feature of the American Institute for Cancer Research, a cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. Questions are fielded by registered dietitian and certified dietitian-nutritionist Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN.

Question: I’ve heard some that some foods have “health halos.” What does that mean?

Collins: A food said to have a “health halo” is a food that sounds healthful or has one nutritious quality so it seems healthful in all ways, including being low in calories, when many times it is not. Sometimes a food gets a “health halo” just by being associated with a restaurant, brand or celebrity that we think of as a source of healthful food.

Some foods with “health halos” may have a healthy-sounding claim on the package such as natural, low fat or fat-free. But those terms don’t necessarily mean the food is low in sugar or calories or that it has any health benefits. Even if foods contain some healthful ingredients, it can be easy to overlook those foods’ high calorie contents. Cookies made with whole-grain flour, muffins that contain grated carrots or fruit, and snack bars that include dried fruit and nuts all contain ingredients with health value, but they also typically contain large amounts of fat, sugars or both that increase calories.

Create eating habits that support a healthy weight and overall good health by making foods rich in nutrients and relatively low in calories – vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans – the centerpiece of each meal and snack. Don’t let label claims distract you from checking nutrient and calorie content on foods’ Nutrition Facts panel, including the portion size that those figures represent. Complete your eat smart strategy with a mindset in which you base the amount you eat on physical hunger, rather than misleading cues like how “healthful” the food is or seems to be.

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