The Irony of Healthy Food

For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the importance of healthy lifestyles, and particularly, healthy eating. Importantly, however, the definition of healthy isn’t always clear, and that this confusion often leads to negative effects. Nevertheless, with the advent of better access to media and communication sources,the public is becoming more and more educated, and (presumably) able to make better choices with regards to food.

In addition, there have been many efforts made by organizations like the government in helping push the healthy eating agenda. For example, across various cities and states in the U.S., a tax policy on items like soda has been proposed in large part to curb health issues like childhood obesity. In New York City, a new regulation, started in 2008, limits restaurants to using trans fat-free ingredients, and fines those who do not comply. And while such tax proposals on “bad” foods are becoming more and more commonplace in recent time, some legislatures have even gone as far as suggesting a “Fat Tax,” or in other words, a tax for simply being obese.

Beyond the political side of things, companies themselves appear to be taking on an initiative towards providing consumers with healthier food options. For example, fast food chains like Subway position themselves almost entirely as being a healthier option than the typical burger joints. Even restaurants like Dunkin Donuts, the epitome of unhealthy eating, have joined in on the fight and changed their recipes towards healthier alternatives. Moreover, a huge trend in the past few years has been the addition of altogether healthy menu options. One of the pioneering retailers to do this was McDonald’s, whose salads, fruit side dish, and even whole wheat bun options have led others to follow suit.

While the addition of healthier options (theoretically) represent the good intentions of fast food restaurants, there is uncertainty with whether these efforts are truly benefitting society. In fact, recent work in the academic literature suggests the opposite. In one recent paper by Wilcox, Vallen, Block, and Fitzsimons (2009), the researchers examined consumers’ choices when presented with either menus that contained unhealthy and healthy options (i.e., french fries, salad) or menus that only included unhealthy options (i.e., french fries, cheeseburgers). Quite surprisingly, findings suggest that when menu included healthy options, consumers were more likely to choose the most unhealthy option than when the menu included only unhealthy options. Further examination of this effect provided support for a vicarious goal fulfillment explanation–that is, when consumers saw the healthy options on the menu, they felt like they vicariously fulfilled their health goals, and thus were licensed to indulge by choosing the most fattening, unhealthy option instead.

In a similar vein, other research has found that consumers often perceive of all food items at so-called healthier restaurants as having fewer calories than those  found at restaurants that are not primarily positioned as being healthy. In work by Chandon and Wansink (2007), consumers were found to underestimate the total number of calories in foods from restaurants positioned as being healthy. Additionally, this health halo generalized onto the side dishes they chose: the healthier the restaurant was perceived to be (due to the availability of healthier menu options and a little bit of marketing), the more unhealthy side dish options consumers chose.

Thus, I leave you to ponder what the best plan of action is. If the efforts being made by the push towards healthy eating by the government and companies is backfiring, what is left to be done? Can educating consumers, and thus making them aware of these effects as highlighted above, help? Whatever the answer may be, it is crucial for us to figure out the answer. With  1 in every 3 Americans is now technically considered obese,  figuring it out now may greatly affect our society for generations to come.

 

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