Low fat granola - Unhealthy Health Foods. Is There Such A Thing?

Unhealthy Health Foods. Is There Such A Thing?


Low fat granola 795x322 - Unhealthy Health Foods. Is There Such A Thing?

Guest contributor: Alida Iacobellis, Dietetic Intern and MHSc Candidate


Eating well can mean a lot of different things depending on who you ask – it is a rather vague term. Regardless, most of us know what eating well looks like, we mainly struggle with the application – the how of eating well.


Our food choices are influenced by many different factors including enjoyment, time, convenience, culture, emotion, and affordability (1). These same factors can also play a role in whether or not our food choices are aligned with our definition of eating well. While these are all important influencers, there is one in particular that rarely gets the attention it deserves – the satisfaction factor.


Food and Health: The Misleading Message We Get from the Media


Anytime you hear about food in the media, it’s being held responsible for one of two things: killing us slowly or saving us from chronic disease. There is no middle ground, it’s one extreme or the other. Fast food, treats, and junk food are often front and center when it comes to criticizing our food choices and laying blame for our poor health. At the same time, other foods achieve celebrity status for their antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals.


Red meat will certainly give you cancer, but some antioxidant rich dark chocolate and red wine will prevent it.


Fast food causes heart disease, but some low-fat granola with extra fiber will save the day.


Sugar sweetened beverages will set you down the road to diabetes, but artificially and ‘naturally’ sweetened substitutes are a safe bet.


The media loves to link together specific foods with specific health risks, and this unavoidably leads to foods being labeled as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. The problem is that the relationship between food and health isn’t anywhere near as simple as the media makes it out to be. No one food in isolation can cause disease, just like no one food in isolation can reverse or prevent disease.


Not only are these messages misleading, but this idea of labeling and classifying foods based on their health-promoting or health-robbing properties creates a bit of a paradox. Classifying foods based on their positive or negative effect on health and relying on this information to make food choices can lead us to be worse off than if we just ate (and enjoyed) the less healthy food **in moderation** in the first place. Let me explain.


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 The Health Halo Effect


As we strive to adopt healthier diets to prevent disease and improve the quality and length of our lives, the food industry has responded with a wide array of solutions in attempts to make the healthier choice the easier choice.


One of the ways they have tried to tackle this issue is by taking our guilty pleasures, stripping them of fat, sugar, and salt (the very things that make foods taste good), and adding some superfoods — a dash of probiotics here, a spoonful of antioxidants there, and a pinch of fiber to make us feel better about our choices and convince us it’s still ok to eat the foods we crave.


Another approach taken by the food industry which has been encouraged by our government is the use of health claims which emphasize the healthy characteristics of foods (2).


Both of the above are example of the health halo effect. By highlighting the healthy aspects of foods, adding healthy ingredients, or removing unhealthy ones, consumers tend to unconsciously indulge in these healthier-for-you alternatives (2). In theory, you can see why the food industry has jumped on this bandwagon whole heartedly – healthier ice cream means more ice cream eaten and more ice cream sold.

Sugar free 300x200 - Unhealthy Health Foods. Is There Such A Thing?Halo Top ice cream is a great example of a food with a health halo, and hey, it also conveniently happens to have the word halo in its name. If you haven’t heard of it, the product’s main claim to fame is that you can enjoy ice cream for just 80-100 calories, 3 grams of fat and 6-8 grams of sugar per half cup serving. That seems like a pretty good deal when you compare these stats to regular ice cream. With Halo Top, you can have the best of both worlds – ice cream without the fat, sugar, calories, or guilt!


Research confirms that there are many factors which influence our healthy/unhealthy categorization of foods, such as their perceived fat content and stereotypical beliefs related to their names. Research has also shown that our perception of how ‘healthy’ a food is may influence our estimation of its caloric content. Further, there is evidence to suggest that low-fat nutrition claims could also contribute to overeating by increasing consumers’ serving-sizes and reducing guilt associated with eating (3). That is, they make you feel better about eating more.


A Product of Diet Culture


Even though health foods were created as a solution to help us improve our diets, they do not address the root cause of our problem which is multi-faceted and complex. Instead, they are more of a band-aid solution which acts to quickly cover up the real culprits behind why making the healthier choice is so hard for so many.


Diet culture describes the society we live in, which places value on the size, weight, and shape of our bodies. These aspects of our appearance have an impact on how physically attractive we are perceived to be and how successful we are in the workplace (4). They are also (wrongly) used as a surface level way of measuring our health– smaller bodies are equated with health while larger ones are associated with disease (5). With such a large proportion of our population falling into the larger body category, it comes as no surprise that losing weight and shrinking the size of our bodies has become a high priority for many.


Diet culture can be as blatant as advertisements for weight loss programs, diet pills, and detoxes, or it can be subtler – for example, the clean eating movement. In both cases, praise is placed on one’s ability to have self-control, follow the plan, and lose inches, while shame is handed out to those who fall off the wagon. With almost any fad diet or trendy weight loss plan, living in a state of deprivation is central to success, but human physiology and psychology make this type of lifestyle near impossible to maintain for the long-term.

Scale 300x200 - Unhealthy Health Foods. Is There Such A Thing?

Research shows that restrictive diets do not appear to be successful long-term. Consequences of calorie restriction include increased hunger and appetite leading to unrestrained eating as well as an increase in frequency of obsessive thoughts about food and eating (6). In short, depriving our bodies of what they need and want creates the perfect storm for weight gain. All this suggests that eliminating forbidden foods may be counterproductive as a strategy for improved health through weight loss (3).


Besides the fact that depriving ourselves isn’t effective long-term, it’s also not a fun way to live life! Avoiding this dreaded state of deprivation is exactly what the food industry is trying to remedy with all of their healthier-for-you, low-fat, low-sugar, calorie-reduced options. The problem with these health halo products is that the satisfaction factor is almost always lacking.


Unfortunately, most of the aspects of food that make them enjoyable seem to be the same ones that we are led to fear for the sake of our health.


So, we can eat the low-fat, low-sugar, low-calorie ice cream, but it probably won’t satisfy us, and we will just end up going back for more. If it’s half as good, you’ll just eat twice as much, and then you are right back where you started. Our bodies don’t tolerate living in a state of deprivation for very long.




Moderation is a word I use sparingly as I often find it rather meaningless without a good amount of context to support it. What is a moderate amount of ice cream? No one really knows. And even if there was a hard and fast definition for moderation, a moderate amount for one person might not be the same as a moderate portion for another.


If you are someone who doesn’t feel they can trust themselves around junk food, this part is for you. There is research to suggest that the reason you can’t seem to have just one scoop of your favourite ice cream is directly related to the fact that you view this ice cream as unhealthy and see it as a forbidden food (7, 8). Conversely, if you let go of the labels and give yourself the freedom to eat the ice cream and enjoy it without guilt, moderation will slowly become a concept that you really start to understand (9). This is all part of the process of learning to eat intuitively.


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The Bottom Line


Every day we eat to fuel our bodies with the energy needed to do the things we need and want in life. Sometimes we eat because we are happy, sometimes we eat because we are sad, sometimes we eat to be social, and sometimes we eat to remember. The foods that we choose and the foods that are available to us in these different situations don’t need to be seen as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. As much as society might be telling you otherwise, finding some middle ground with flexibility and enjoyment can and should be a part of healthy eating.


When foods are made healthier at the expense of satisfaction, it’s hard to find their merit in achieving the very thing they were created to do: help us eat healthier. As a general rule I like to say that if your health food is just as satisfying as the real deal, then by all means go for it! But if you’ve finished your Halo Top and have a craving for more, it might be time to reconsider your choice.


Food is more than fuel and it’s more than medicine. It’s something you eat to provide your body, mind, and soul with nourishment. When you view food in this way, free of labels, there’s no wagon to fall off of, no cheat meals and no good days. Just everyday meals, eaten and unapologetically enjoyed.



  1. Emilien C, Hollis JH. A brief review of salient factors influencing adult eating behaviour. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2017 Dec;30(02):233–46.
  2. Her E, Seo S. Health halo effects in sequential food consumption: The moderating roles of health-consciousness and attribute framing. International Journal of Hospitality Management. 2017 Apr;62:1–10.
  3. Provencher V, Polivy J, Herman CP. Perceived healthiness of food. If it’s healthy, you can eat more! Appetite. 2009 Apr;52(2):340–4.
  4. Giel KE, Thiel A, Teufel M, Mayer J, Zipfel S. Weight Bias in Work Settings – a Qualitative Review. Obesity Facts. 2010;3(1):33–40.
  5. Puhl RM, Latner JD, O’Brien K, Luedicke J, Danielsdottir S, Forhan M. A multinational examination of weight bias: predictors of anti-fat attitudes across four countries. International Journal of Obesity. 2015 Jul;39(7):1166–73.
  6. MacLean PS, Bergouignan A, Cornier M-A, Jackman MR. Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2011 Sep;301(3):R581–600.
  7. Jáuregui-Lobera I, Bolaños-Ríos P, Valero E, Ruiz Prieto I. Induction of food craving experience; the role of mental imagery, dietary restraint, mood and coping strategies. Nutricion hospitalaria. 2012;27(6).
  8. O’Reilly GA, Cook L, Spruijt-Metz D, Black DS. Mindfulness-based interventions for obesity-related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obes Rev. 2014 Jun 1;15(6):453–61.
  9. Carbonneau E, Bégin C, Lemieux S, Mongeau L, Paquette M-C, Turcotte M, et al. A Health at Every Size intervention improves intuitive eating and diet quality in Canadian women. Clinical Nutrition. 2017 Jun;36(3):747–54.


Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health.  Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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