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Beware of Health Halos

The Biasing Health Halos of Fast–Food Restaurant Health Claims

The Biasing Health Halos of Fast–Food Restaurant Health Claims

“Health-halos” can make people think their meal is healthier than it actually is

Consumers at “healthy” fast food restaurants were more likely to underestimate the calorie content of their meal and order unhealthy sides

When eating at “healthy” fast food restaurants, be aware of the power of health-halos and the amount that you are consuming

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Chandon, Pierre and Brian Wansink (2007). The Biasing Health Halos of Fast Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side–Dish Consumption Intentions. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(3) 301–314.

While the trend of eating healthy has been growing over the past few years at a rate of 6% each year, American obesity rates have yet to decline. In fact, obesity rates have been increasing at a rate of 3% each year. This simultaneous increase in obesity and the popularity of healthier fast food restaurants has come to be known as the American paradox. While it seems to stump most people, Pierre Chandon and Brian Wansink went to work to discover how this paradox has evolved.

The increase in obesity rates has been attributed to an increase in calorie intake, and not to less calorie expenditure, because the amount of time spent doing physical activity has actually increased in the past 4 decades. Through a series of four studies, Wansink and Chandon have proposed a health–halo explanation for why obesity is attributed to calorie intake, despite the increased popularity of healthier eating.

The studies found that consumers eating at a fast food restaurant perceived as "healthy" (such as Subway), were more likely to underestimate their calorie intake by an average of 151 calories than if the consumers were eating at a fast–food restaurant perceived as "unhealthy" (such as McDonald's). Additionally, the research indicated that consumers were more likely to order sides, drinks, and desserts if their entrée was perceived to be healthier (ex., a sandwich from Subway) than if their entrée was less healthy (ex., a Big Mac from McDonald's). They found that the additional drinks, sides, and desserts contained up to 131% more calories for those eating healthy entrees. Surprisingly, health–halos caused calorie underestimation for participants who were both highly involved in nutrition as well as those who had little concern with nutrition. Finally, a recent study conducted by Wansink and Chandon showed that the bias of health claims can be eliminated when consumers are stimulated to consider if the opposite health claims are true.

Summary by Jillian Morgan

Compare the Calories – what do you think?

How many calories do you think are in the Big Mac? What about the Turkey Breast and Ham Sandwich shown below? Scroll over the following pictures to find out the answer.



Big Mac

  • 540 calories

6" Turkey Breast & Ham Sandwich

  • 380 calories

Please Note– The photo of the Subway sandwich taken by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau and used with permissions, via Wikimedia Commons.

For more information about calories in popular sandwiches at Subway's, visit the following link: Subway's