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As the popularity of healthier menus increases, so does the weight of many Americans. We propose that the American obesity paradox is due to the "health halo" effect, in which consumers believe that meals advertised as healthier have fewer calories, and compensate by choosing higher calorie drinks, desserts, and side dishes. To test this hypothesis, we asked 193 consumers at McDonald's and 127 consumers at Subway who had just finished eating a meal consisting of a sandwich, soft drink, and side order to estimate the caloric content of their meals.
These participants indicated that they considered Subway meals to be significantly healthier than McDonald's meals. The participants believed that a 1,000–calorie Subway meal contains 21.3% less calories than a 1,000–calorie McDonald's meal. A follow–up study of 316 participants who regularly consumed McDonald's or Subway also indicated that consumers believe McDonald's food is overall higher in calories compared to Subway. In a third study, undergraduates were given either a coupon for either a Subway sandwich or a McDonald's sandwich and asked to select what sizes and types of drinks and side dishes they would order with their sandwich. The Subway sandwich contained more calories than the McDonald's meal, yet the total meal's calories were significantly lower for McDonald's meals. A fourth follow–up study with 210 undergraduates offered generic fast food products instead of brand names and asked questions on the health content of these foods, proving that the health halo results were not skewed by the brand names of Subway and McDonald's. In total, these four studies confirmed our health halo hypothesis; consumers chose beverages, side dishes and desserts containing up to 131% more calories when the main dish was positioned as "healthy," even though the main dish contained more calories than the "unhealthy option". These results explain the American obesity paradox and can guide innovative strategies and policies for consumers, marketers, and policy makers looking to minimize obesity.
Chandon, Pierre and Brian Wansink (2007). The Biasing Health Halos of Fast Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side–Dish Consumption Intentions. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(3) 301–314.