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“It’s all-natural, so it’s good for you.”
Chances are high you’re lying to yourself at least one meal per day. Studies have found that people often underestimate how many calories they eat while overestimating how many they burn during exercise. We play other tricks on ourselves, too: Many people erroneously assert that adding healthy foods to unhealthy ones—say, adding half a grapefruit to a plate of bacon and eggs—can mitigate the health and caloric impact of the latter. A 2014 study published in medical journal The Lancet found that people inaccurately describe fruit juice as a “health food,” when many contain the same sugar content as a serving of cola.
It’s so common, it has a name: The Halo Effect, where people shroud their poor nutritional choices in rationalization and buzzwords. Matt Ruscigno, a Registered Dietitian with Los Angeles-based nutrition clinic Nutrinic, says these nutritional falsehoods are spouted so often, many believe them as fact. Such lies can derail our diets, keeping us from optimal performance. The most common nutritional lies athletes tell themselves:
“If I get the side salad instead of fries, it cancels out the cheeseburger.”
“Most of us love to lie to ourselves this way to justify a bigger issue,” Ruscigno asserts. “While substituting a high-calorie fried food for some leafy greens is almost always a good idea, problems could arise if you use this as a justification to eat a meal that is overall less healthy than what you would have eaten.”
In other words, the cheeseburger is still a cheeseburger, no matter what’s occupying the plate next to it. Promote the salad from side dish to main course, and you’ll get more from your meal.
“It’s all-natural, so it’s good for you.”
Although consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to choose healthier options at the supermarket, researchers found they are often tricked into thinking food is more nutritious because of marketing buzzwords. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that more than half of consumers seek out products with a “natural” food label, believing that they are produced without genetically modified organisms, hormones, pesticides or artificial ingredients.
But “all-natural” means none of those things, says Ruscigno. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything at all: “It’s used on labels, and unfortunately does fool a lot of people.”
A general rule of thumb to follow: If it comes in a package, it probably isn’t all-natural, no matter what it says on the box. “As athletes, sometimes we do need packaged foods for convenience,” says Ruscigno, “and that’s fine, as long as we are honest about what we are eating.”
“I only eat beef if it’s grass-fed.”
“This is so common, and sadly the benefits of grass-fed beef over factory farmed beef aren’t as great as the claims,” says Ruscigno.
One example is the content of Omega-3 fatty acids. Those who promote grass-fed beef talk in percentages as a way of making it sound like their product contains a lot more Omega-3s. In actuality, there is an insignificant difference between grass-fed beef and its factory farmed counterpart.
Beer is good for workout recovery, and wine is a health food.
Beer is a lot of fun post-workout, but don’t call it a nutritional boost! Not only does alcohol leave you dehydrated, but experts say it can also delay muscle recovery after exercise. The only kind of beer that has been found to be beneficial for workout recovery is the non-alcoholic variety, which has all of the electrolytes but none of the buzz.
The same is true for wine, says Ruscigno. “Wine does have some positive health benefits, but you could just also eat grapes. If that’s laughable, then you probably need to be honest about why you drink wine.”
It’s sugar-free, so it’s healthier!
When a packaged food is touted as sugar-free, that usually means the real sugar has been replaced with an artificial sweetener. It sounds healthier, but it’s still a packaged, processed product. “Maybe the sugar-free product could be healthier than the original counterpart, but it’s still a packaged food. Sugar is sugar, and it doesn’t matter if it’s honey or agave or maple syrup or unrefined coconut dust. if it’s a packaged food, it’s probably not aiding your health much in the first place.”
In 2016, The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association both said artificial sweeteners could be a way to combat obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the United States. But they also pointed out one major downfall: people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources (“A sugar-free vanilla latte and a blueberry muffin, please!”), possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits.
I only shop at Whole Foods, so I eat healthy.
Whole Foods is a perfect example of The Halo Effect, says Ruscigno: “Whole Foods has an excellent vegan bakery, and all of my favorite ice creams! See where this can go?”
Browse the aisles of a Whole Foods, and you’ll find their products don’t always match the namesake. Buying a pizza from the Whole Foods hot bar may feel more virtuous than a slice from the neighborhood deli, but it’s still a pizza. Certain foods simply can’t escape junk-food status, no matter where they’re sold.
I can have two pieces of pie tonight—I ran today!
“In my practice one of the most common themes when I work with athletes is reminding them that most apps and tracking programs significantly overestimate calories burned during exercise,” says Ruscigno. “Sure, those of you with huge workout regimes probably need a slice of pie or two as discretionary calories to meet your needs but most of us do not—especially if trying to make a race weight.”
Ruscigno says there’s nothing wrong with a treat after a workout, so long as the reward matches the work. Fill up on something healthy first to give your body the nutrients it needs post-workout, then head for a modest slice of pie. Eat it slowly, like a special treat—because that’s exactly what it should be.