How to Rethink Your Eating Habits

Pop quiz: Which has more calories, a bowl of chili and a side salad or the chili solo?

The right answer, chili plus salad, might seem obvious, but most people got it wrong in a study from Northwestern University. In fact, participants guessed that the chili-salad combo had an average of 43 fewer calories than the chili alone. That kind of culinary confusion can afflict all of us. Our vision gets clouded by the "health halo," when we believe foods are lighter or more nutritious than they are because of factors such as proximity to good-for-you food, says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Logically, we know that mushrooms and onions won't cancel out a pizza's calories (if only!), but we may fall for it subconsciously and end up eating more. Don't get duped: A few easy tweaks to your thinking can help you see past the halo every time.

Ditch the judgment.

Our brain divides foods into "good" and "bad" categories (e.g., bread is naughty; fruit is nice), and we tend to underestimate the calorie count of virtuous food, says Northwestern study author Alexander Chernev, Ph.D. Instead of pinning morals to meals, eat what you love—the healthful and indulgent alike—and focus on portion size. For starters, know how much you're really eating. You don't have to pull out a food scale, but use a measuring cup for a few days so you'll learn what 1/2 cup of cereal or rice looks like. And dine on salad plates: In Wansink's study, people ate 31 percent more ice cream when it came in big bowls. In a reasonable portion, no nibble is off-limits.

Expand your calorie horizons.

Sizing up a restaurant meal's calorie load is a guessing game, especially at a self-proclaimed healthy joint, where diners tend to think every dish is light, Wansink says. If we pass on a decadent meal and opt for a healthy one, we think it's lower in calories than it is and eat more to reward ourselves for the choice, he says. Wansink's rule of thumb: Double your calorie estimate, then adjust your portion.

Don't fear fat.

People ate nearly 30 percent more M&M's when they were in a bowl labeled lowfat versus one with no such promise, research by Wansink finds. Folks were wooed by the lowfat status and noshed more, he says. If we're less apt to overdo with full-fat food, why not enjoy the good stuff?

Read between the lines.

When we see foods dubbed heart-smart or organic, our brain thinks "light," Wansink's research shows. People thought that cookies labeled organic had up to 140 fewer calories than those without that designation. (They actually could have 10 times as many calories!) Avoid being hoodwinked by the halo; eyeball the calorie and fat content per serving (there's often more than one per package), and scan the ingredients for sneaky fats such as partially hydrogenated oils, says Gloria Tsang, R.D., author of Go UnDiet. Happy, healthy shopping!

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