If you want low-calorie fast food, which chain do you choose: Subway or McDonald’s? While most people would undoubtedly choose Subway, that could be a very fat answer.
A team of researchers found diners underestimated calories in food from Subway – a fast food restaurant that markets itself as a “healthier” alternative — by 35 percent more than they did from comparable choices at McDonald’s, which does not claim to be healthier. The researchers hypothesize consumers were prone to a phenomenon known as a “health-halo,” which caused them to underestimate calories from restaurants they perceived to be healthier and ultimately consume more calories than they would have otherwise.
Welcome to the new enemy in the battle of the bulge — the “health halo.” If we think our main course is good, we are more likely to order a side of very bad. Hence, the Subway diners in the study were more likely to justify ordering desserts, such as cookies. Study participants who claimed to be nutrition-savvy and health-conscious were better at estimating calories, but were just as likely to be influenced by “health” claims.
One particular group of study participants was presented with either a coupon for a (900-calorie) Subway sandwich or a coupon for a (600-calorie) McDonald’s Big Mac burger. Not knowing the calorie contents, participants still believed the Subway sandwich to be lower in calories and were more likely to order side dishes. Ultimately, they ended up consuming 56% more calories than those eating at McDonald’s.
In one study, diners at Subway and McDonald’s were asked to estimate the calorie content of their meal and to rate the overall healthiness of the food. On a scale from one to nine, Subway’s food was rated as much healthier than food at McDonald’s. Seemingly influenced by the “health halo,” consumers believed that a 1,000-calorie meal at Subway actually contained 21.3 percent fewer calories than a 1,000-calorie meal at McDonald’s.
Think it’s not possible to eat that many calories in one meal? Consider the calorie contents of these popular fast-food options often marketed as “healthier options”:
- McDonald’s Angus Deluxe Snack Wrap – about 410 calories
- Subway 12” Oven Roasted Chicken sub – about 640 calories, not including extras like mayo (110 calories), cheese (60 calories) or salad dressing (45 calories)
- McDonald’s Chocolate Chip Cookie – about 160 calories
- Subway Oatmeal Raisin cookie – about 200 calories
- McDonald’s Fries – 410 Calories
- Subway’s Baked Lays Chips – 130 Calories
- Wendy’s Baja Garden Sensations Salad – 740 calories
As we reported recently, similar research found foods labeled “organic” were mistaken by consumers to be lower in calories. Don’t be fooled into letting the “health halo” ruin your dieting efforts.
As the researchers point out, eating just 160 extra calories twice a week can amount to a 5 lb. annual weight gain. And, while it’s okay to indulge in a high-calorie meal from time to time, balancing it out with lighter meals or more exercise for the rest of the day is key to preventing unintended weight gain.