Is the halo effect making us fat? 'Good' foods that may not be so good!

Why your diet may not be going as well as you'd planned!

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


14 September 2018

What is the halo effect?

It’s fact – unfortunately as a nation we’re getting fatter and unhealthier as time goes by. However, with new technology and research how is this possible? Surely with food technology we can create the foods that are healthiest of all and we should be fitter and healthier than ever? Well, some would argue this is just the very problem. We’re too busy living on the latest fad diet, or eating the trendiest new ‘health food’ and missing the point completely – we’re no longer eating food! 

Many of the foods we now find available in the shops are as far away from ‘food’ as you can get. If you asked one of our ancestors to go shopping nowadays, I can bet they’d struggle to find the real food in amongst the bright packets, long ingredients lists and latest special offers slogans lining our shelves!

This halo effect is real, and here I run through some of the worst offenders; the ‘healthy’ foods that could in fact, be making us fatter and more unhealthy by the minute!

1 - ‘Low-fat’ or ‘low-calorie’ options!

This one may come as a bit of a surprise for many of you, but anything labelled ‘low-fat’ or ‘low-calorie’ must be approached with caution and may even be better off avoiding altogether. Why? Let me explain. Firstly, if something is labelled in such a way it’s a packaged food. What happened to eating fresh? Most wholefoods should have minimal packaging without the need for exaggerated marketing terms or slogans lining every inch of them. 

Next, the term ‘low-fat‘ suggests fat has been removed (through some processing method no doubt) and so what’s most likely to be included instead? Some sugar or artificial sweeteners perhaps, but certainly not some good quality protein! This label is a common feature on dairy products and ready meals, to name a few, and is definitely one to watch.

Next, we need a healthy dose of both fat and calories in our diets! These are exactly what we need from the food we eat, and yes, even fat is important to help support a healthy weight and keep our metabolism ticking over. If we cut our calories, we not only risk caving and reverting back to our old ways (or worse), but we most definitely need sufficient calories to support our metabolism and a healthy weight.

What’s my advice?

Try to eat fresh foods as much as possible – remember fruit and vegetables are naturally lower calorie options anyway, yet are still loaded with essential nutrients that we need to supply our bodies with. Plus, don’t be scared of good quality fats, especially good sources of omega-3 including fish oils, avocado and nut oils.

2 - Breakfast cereals & bars

Breakfast cereals are another pet peeve of mine. The problem here tends to lie with the packaging, many of which state they’re ‘high-fibre’, high-protein’ and ‘low in fat’. Also, in some cases, the traffic light systems themselves can be entirely miss leading! 

Generally, breakfast cereals and supposedly healthy granolas or bars are carb-heavy options loaded with sugar in one form or another. They’re often lower in protein and essential fatty acids plus, let’s face it, they are often highly processed options which means the carbs they contain aren’t likely to be the best options anyway! 

What’s my advice?

Make your own porridge or granolas so you know what’s in there and top with lots of protein rich nuts or seeds for a more well-balanced, filling (and satisfyingly tasty!) start to your day. If you’re short of time and opting for a bar instead, be sure to check the ingredients list – you’re looking for ones that contain wholefoods such as nuts, seeds or dried fruits only, rather than any unidentifiable ingredients.

3 - Honey

There’s a common theme here... sugar! Although honey is certainly a healthier alternative to table sugar or highly processed fructose corn syrups – it’s still a source of sugar and let’s be honest – in general we are eating way too much of it!

What’s my advice? 

Make things at home so you know exactly how much sweetness has been added to your different dishes. Packaged foods are often loaded with hidden sugar and the names can be deceiving – there are lots of different names that all mean the same thing! 

Another top tip is to replace sweetness with other flavours such as herbs or spices. Cinnamon, for example, is a fab option – it has a lovely fragrant taste and research suggests that cinnamon may actually help to protect against irregularities in our blood sugar levels1.

4 - Diet drinks

It’s been engrained in us that ‘full-sugar’ (even known as ‘full-fat’ which is entirely miss-leading) fizzy drinks are a poorer option when compared their diet variety counterparts. What’s the truth of the matter though? Well, both are probably as bad as each other! 

Although diet varieties may not have the calories, as we’ve explained above, calories aren’t the be all and end all, and research is starting to suggest that our bodies may not be reacting so favourably to ‘low-calorie’ artificial sweeteners after all2– surprise surprise! It seems that these sweeteners may still trick your body into releasing insulin which, in the end up, could have adverse effects on our appetite and weight management processes in the long-term.

What’s my advice?

Avoid all the packaged drinks and keep it straightforward. We simply don’t drink enough water anymore and it’s become a bit of a global crisis! Water helps to keep us hydrated, healthy and literally every system in our body needs sufficient water to work optimally. 

If you can’t bear the thought of plain water, jazz it up with some fresh fruit slices for a hint of added sweetness, but again, don’t be fooled by any packaged, flavoured versions.

5 - Red wine

Red wine is often seen to have health benefits relating to the heart  so it’s not all bad. However, when it comes to red wine, let’s not get too excited as it turns out many of the associated health benefits have turned out to be most prominent in some of the healthiest communities in the world – go figure! See, they drink their alcohol in moderation (that is, only a glass or two at a time) and they also eat it alongside food, and good food at that! 

When it comes to wine, or other alcohol for that matter, in Western societies we tend to do it all wrong. We drink it in excess and often alongside poor quality, energy dense foods (often in a bid to soak up the alcohol and prevent the dreaded hangover!). The combination of this, plus the effects alcohol can have on our blood sugar and stress responses when consumed in excess, is all a big recipe for disaster. So, those headlines that suggest red wine, or gin more recently, are good for us? Let’s take those with a pinch of salt as it turns out there are lots of other factors to consider when it comes to alcohol.

What’s my advice?

A glass or two of wine now and again (especially red wine as it’s particularly rich in antioxidants), is fine, but it certainly should be in moderation and our diets should still be based around good, wholesome foods, whether we’re having a tipple or not.

6 - Vegetable oils

Cooking oils are perhaps still one of the most controversial areas when it comes to nutrition. These are fats; so is fat really good or bad and if it’s good, which types should we be opting for?

What’s my advice?

I’ve written a whole blog on this topic; ‘Our guide to healthiest cooking oils’ so head over there for more info. However, the gist of it is, consider how these oils are processed. Mass produced, harshly processed oils aren’t going to be rich in essential nutrients, so in general vegetable oils in immense plastic containers are ones for avoiding, and instead opt for organic, cold pressed, virgin, plant-based oils.

 

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11506060

2. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3576.abstract

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