Fried FoodWe have noted the phenomenon of the “health halo” before — a notional belief about a food’s healthfulness, justified or not, that counterintuitively leads to less healthy eating habits. People presume that supposedly “good” food has fewer calories than it actually does, leading to unintended overconsumption.

A recent article by Yoni Freedhoff in U.S. News & World Report sheds light on another intriguing paradox involving the presence of so-called “healthy” foods on restaurant menus. According to Freedhoff, the mere presence of “healthy” foods actually is more likely to increase unhealthy eating habits. One of the studies cited by Freedhoff explores the truly bizarre happening that researchers call “vicarious goal fulfillment“:

Using menus that differed only by the inclusion of a ‘healthier’ option, researchers studied ordering patterns. When salads were included on a menu, fries were chosen more frequently. When veggie burgers were highlighted, more bacon cheeseburgers were purchased. When 100-calorie packs of Oreos were available for dessert, more people opted for chocolate covered ones.

Important to note is that it was only the mere presence of what a customer — in his or her own mind — perceived to be a healthy food that appeared to lead customers to choose less healthy options. This isn’t to say that selling “healthy” foods is somehow bad, although Freedhoff suggests that so-called processed foods should be all but banned. But by marking the “processed” as “bad” and the “whole foods” as “good,” food cops like Freedhoff risk creating the very health halos that supposedly outrage them.

Due to the fact that there is still so much unknown when it comes to encouraging consumers to eat healthily, might it not be best to simply get out of people’s business and allow them to eat as they choose?