Smart marketing crowds the aisles of a grocery store. “Healthy food” messages can be deceiving and reveal more of a health halo than a healthy option. Help your clients identify these common halos.

What is the health halo?

The “Health Halo” is a term given to those subtle, but persuasive words or phrases listed on food packages or in advertisements. When a food label or packaged good proudly and boldly states “organic”, “gluten-free”, “reduced fat”, “fat-free”, or “natural”, consumers tend to believe that food is healthy or is a healthier alternative.

Unfortunately, this is frequently a ruse.  The unvarnished truth is the “health halo” can cause individuals to overindulge in seemingly harmless foods.

A Sugar Free Word With Background

6 Popular Health Halos

1. Fat-Free: Fat-free does not equal calorie free. Fat gives food flavor and when it is removed from a food, something has to take its place to allow the food to be palatable and tasty. Many times, fat-free or reduced-fat foods contain higher amounts of sodium or sugar.

It might be better to consume a single serving of the original version (depending on what it is) than to consume any of the low-fat or fat-free versions.

2. Gluten Free: Gluten allergies require significant changes in dietary habits. However, not everyone is gluten sensitive; choosing to avoid wheat products may result in the sacrificing of fiber. Labeling a product as “gluten-free” does not make the food any better or worse to consume.

Rather it is a marketing tactic to make the food appear healthier or have an added benefit because of its gluten-free status.

3. Trans-Fat Free: The devil in disguise. It might be true – a single serving of a trans-fat free product may not contain enough hydrogenated oils to register as trans-fat consumption; however, if hydrogenated oils are listed in the ingredient list there are still Trans fats in the food. It’s best practice to help clients focus on the quality of ingredients versus the food label alone.

4. Extra Fiber: Choosing high fiber foods is a healthy practice. This is another case where examining the ingredient list along with the food label is useful. If fiber has been added, teach clients to ask “what else has been added?”

It’s not uncommon to see added sugar or sodium. Adding fiber or other nutrients without removing some of the less desirable ingredients doesn’t really equal a health benefit.

5. Baked Chips or Veggie Chips: Fat and total calories might be fewer than the original fried chip version, but what else is lurking in that food? Additives (chemicals)! Another point – while these items are not fried, they still have calories – eating three times the serving size might be worse than eating one serving of the original.

6. Fancy Yogurts: Yogurt, alone, is an excellent source of calcium, protein, and probiotics – something everyone can benefit from consuming. However, the sugar-sweetened, fruit-at-the-bottom varieties can be heavily laced with added sugars.

Clients can choose a wholesome plain yogurt version and add berries, nuts, or homemade granola.

The “health halo” has the power to seduce clients into sabotaging well-intended efforts. Remember – it is the quantity and quality of calories that count.

Some of the best strategies to share with clients include choosing foods in their most natural form, shopping the perimeter of the supermarket, purchasing lean proteins, nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews), and checking the ingredient list to search for added or harmful ingredients that don’t need be there.

Clients are most successful when they are informed consumers and possess the know-how to make judicious nutritional choices.

What other “health halos” do you see in the stores?

Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at