Public Release: 

Health halos that make us fat

Cornell Food & Brand Lab


IMAGE: Brian Wansink, Ph.D., is the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behavior and Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. view more

Credit: Personal Photograph

JACKSONVILLE, FL. If you think you eat healthier at the Sunburst Fresh Café than at Big Jims Beefy BBQ, you might be wrong. You could be a victim of the "Health Halo."

This study, presented today at the Association for Consumer Research conference in Jacksonville, FL, showed that people eating at restaurants claiming to be "healthy" estimated they ate only 56% as many calories as they actually did. The problem was these people tended to reward themselves by eating more chips, fries, and cookies, according to authors Pierre Chandon of INSEAD and Brian Wansink of Cornell University.

In one experiment, people were given the same food but told it was from McDonalds or they were told it was from Subway. Even when eating the exact same food, people estimated the sandwich in the Subway wrapper contained 21% fewer calories than the one in the McDonald's wrapper. The problem, said Chandon, was "People can eat more at these "healthy" restaurants, but they think they ate less, so they then opt for a dessert."

There's a solution to the danger of this Health Food halo, said Wansink. "If you're eating at what you think is a healthy restaurant, take your best estimate of the calories in the meal - and double it. You'll be a lot more accurate." Another approach is to think twice as to whether the "Health" positioning of the restaurant is relevant for everything they serve.

These findings, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, were awarded the 2010 Best Paper Award at the Association for Consumer Research Conference in Jacksonville, FL on Saturday, October 9.


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