April Fools' Day seems like a good day to focus on habits that seem healthy but really aren't. It's a shame that sometimes trying to do the right thing can backfire. In the examples below, no good deed goes unpunished. 

Here are a few habits that may seem healthy but that actually hurt you:

1. Drinking bottled water instead of tap. 

Dentists are now seeing an upsurge in cavities in preschoolers of all income levels because parents give them sugary juices, sports drinks (often laden with sugar), and--surprise!--bottled water! We can all understand why sugary drinks cause cavities, but what could be wrong with "pure" bottled water with nice photos of waterfalls and springs?  Well, children and adults who habitually drink bottled water are at higher risk for cavities because bottled water lacks the fluoride in tap water that helps prevent cavities.  For very young children, filling those cavities can involve uncomfortable and even risky dental procedures.   

Plus, spending your money on bottled water can add up.  I've observed college students buying bottled water from a vending machine when good ol' fluoridated water was available at a nearby drinking fountain.  I bet those students could have saved themselves $5/week just by making the change to tap water.  Of course there are times when it makes sense to carry bottled water with you, but it doesn't make sense to make a daily habit of it. 

I once read that some bottled water is simply tap water in a bottle.  Ironically, maybe that's a good thing. 

The CDC has listed "Fluoridation of Drinking Water" as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century, so turn on your faucet and drink up!   I'm talking to you Perrier junkies, too!

2. Getting hypnotized by food labels that use words like "pure," "healthy," and "natural."

These words give food products a "health halo" that is often undeserved.  A prime example, of course, is that "pure" bottled water above. Nutrition researchers have discovered many examples of health halos, finding, for instance, that restaurant entrees labeled "healthy" often were higher in calories than the other entrees.  Moreover, when people think they have made a healthy choice of a main dish, they often give themselves permission to indulge more later or order more side dishes now (the "licensing effect"). 

Here's food expert Brian Wansink explaining how health halos lead to overeating:

Uh-oh.  I think I've fallen for this one more than once.   

3.  Choosing a "reduced-fat" or "low-fat" product because you think it's better for you.

"Reduced-fat" products sound healthy, something you might buy if you wanted to lose weight.  But "reduced-fat" products are often higher in calories because manufacturers add more sugar to enhance the taste--which is necessary because all that tasty fat has been removed!  In a great short article about food myths, dietician Katherine Tallmadge points out that reducing the fat in peanut butter actually removes many of its health benefits, since the oil is the healthiest part of the peanut.  "Reduced-fat" peanut butter is less healthy and contains just as many calories as regular peanut butter!  

Tallmadge also highlights other harmful food habits that wear a healthy-looking mask, including these:  drinking "enhanced water" like vitamin water; gobbling energy bars instead of regular food (Can you say "calorie bomb?"); and mistaking "multigrain" for "whole grain" (Oops! Guilty.).  Find out why these habits can be harmful here.

It's sad when people try to do the right thing for their health, and it ends up being the wrong thing.  Sometimes advertisers are so clever they make fools of all of us! But if you pay attention to the nutrition information on the back of the package instead of the health halo on the front, you'll soon discern the "horns" behind the health haloes, sidestep food traps, and make healthier choices.    

(c) Meg Selig

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For more on habit change, willpower, healthy living, and motivation, please like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.

Sources:

"Increase in cavities."  

"Restaurant entrees." McGonigal, Kelly, The Willpower Instinct, NY: Avery, p. 99.

Katherine Tallmadge, The Washington Post, "5 So-called Health Foods You Should Avoid"

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