The Health Halo and How You’re Sabotaging Your Fitness Progress


Here’s an interesting paradox: people who eat at Subway tend to consume more calories than people who eat at McDonald’s. How can that be? You’ll find out soon enough. If you want to stick with a healthy lifestyle, then you need to get out of your own way. Here are five surprising ways you’re sabotaging your fitness progress.

  1. You eat mindlessly.

You’re not as rational as you might believe. Most of your eating decisions are emotional or circumstantial. Here are some examples that might sound familiar:

  • Letting the smell of candy override your self-control while you’re shopping

    Did this image trigger your hunger?
    Suddenly “hungry”?
  • Eating a piece of pie (even though you’re not hungry), because it’d be “rude” not to
  • Consuming the amount of food on your plate, instead of enough to satisfy your hunger
  • Stopping at a fast food restaurant on the way to the office, because you failed to plan ahead

It doesn’t matter how much you know about proper nutrition. If you’re not mindful, your subconscious will lead you astray. Indeed, being aware of your emotions is more effective than counting calories, according to a study by the Journal of Marketing Research.

The difference between mindless and mindful eating is simple. If you let external cues like stress dictate your choices, you’re a mindless eater. If you let internal cues like appetite guide your choices, you’re a mindful eater. Mindless eaters are slaves to circumstance. Mindful eaters have the power to choose. If you want to read more about mindful eating, open this blog in a new tab.

  1. You dwell on failures.

It’s not failure itself that matters. The important thing is how you respond to failure. Do you admit your shortcoming, forgive yourself, and commit to do better next time? Or do you avoid the issue, punish yourself, and decide you might as well give up?

TV shows like the Biggest Loser might make you think you need to be tough on yourself to get results. The opposite is more accurate. You need to be gentle with yourself to get results. Picking yourself apart for every little mistake will make you feel bad about yourself. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness.

Look at it this way. How would you feel if your boss called you stupid for making a mistake at work? Horrible! An excellent leader would never do that. Instead, they would turn it into a learning opportunity. Insulting an employee would damage trust. Educating an employee would develop confidence. Treat yourself with the same compassion.

  1. You’re wearing a health halo.
How many calories do you see?
How many calories do you see?

It’s hard to estimate how many calories might be in a restaurant meal based on appearance alone. You could make a guess based on contextual clues such as the brand’s health claims (Subway: Eat Fresh!). Studies suggest the average person is a very bad guesser.

There are two competing goals at play when it comes to food: to eat for health or pleasure? Research reveals Subway diners try to have it both ways. Those who ordered a “healthy” main dish were more likely to order a side, drink, and dessert. The extra consumption caused the average diner to underestimate their intake by 151 calories. Adding a “low fat” label to snack foods causes a similar effect.

The health halo bias explains an interesting paradox. 23% of Americans were obese in 1999. By 2001, that number increased to 31%. During the same time period, the proportion of Americans consuming low-calorie foods increased from 48% to 60%. The point? Don’t be too proud of yourself for eating “low calorie” and “low fat” fare. Getting caught up in buzzwords could be causing you to eat bigger portion sizes and increase your daily caloric total.

  1. You give yourself too much credit.

Sometimes you need to be realistic about your health and fitness goals. If you haven’t been to the gym in a year, should you really start your new fitness program exercising every day? If you can’t remember the last time you turned on a stove, do you really think you should give up eating at restaurants?

I’m not trying to make you feel bad about yourself. I am trying to save you from disappointment. It’s easy to overextend when you’re excited about the possibility of change. No matter how “ready” you might feel, don’t go overboard. If you do, real life will catch up to you in a hurry.

Let’s say you start a daily exercise routine, but it falls apart within a month. You catch a nasty cold and miss a couple of workouts. You have to work mandatory overtime and miss several more. Now you feel like a dismal failure, because you missed a whole week of training. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

It’s better to start with a small change that you can realistically sustain for a significant amount of time. For example, you could give yourself the more reasonable goal of exercising three days every week. You should also specify the time, duration, and mode of exercise. For example: “I will walk a mile and stretch for ten minutes as soon as I wake up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

  1. You put too much pressure on your future self.

It’s easy to convince yourself that tomorrow is a magical day of transformation.

All people have this tendency, because we like to believe we will make better decisions in the future. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Your present self and future self are the same exact person.

You will be no more disciplined next week, next month or in a new year than you are today. That might sound depressing, but it’s actually empowering. Your results will be determined by your ability to take action in the here and now. If you keep kicking commitments into the future, you will make procrastination your default behavior.

Forget about next week. It is not necessarily a time of new beginnings. It is just like any other normal week. Here’s a simple way to rewire your brain: start exercising today.  Get up and go for a short walk right now. Schedule your first workout today. Don’t wait until next week to change your life. Teach yourself that transformation doesn’t have to wait for the future to arrive.

Start now.

Did I do that?

About the Author

Daniel Wallen is the CEO (Chief Empowerment Officer) of the Wallen Way. He is a personal trainer, Lifehack contributor, and author of, “The Busy Woman’s Guide to Getting Fit, Fierce, and Fabulous

Dr. Mark Brittingham is the CEO of BSDI and creator of the Motivation Alliance®. He has provided assessment, training and inspiration software to the health and fitness industry for over 20 years.

14 thoughts on “The Health Halo and How You’re Sabotaging Your Fitness Progress”

  1. To add to your health halo point- in the 1990s the fat free craze changed the way Americans eat for the worse. We have to get past the idea that fat is bad for us and that we need to limit out intake. Dr. Willett from Harvard of Public Health has debunked the myth regarding low-fat diets ( I believe Americans need to spend less time counting calories and more time understanding the nutrition they are putting into their bodies.

  2. healthy habits in a busy and emotional work environment tend to be challenging and your article has given good food for thought to avoid the up and downs that comes with eating and living healthy.

    1. Yep, work can make healthy choices a lot harder to make. Up’s and down’s are normal. The trick is to not worry much about the down’s. Instead, learn from them – don’t judge yourself – get right back to it.

  3. This has several GREAT points…that I must admit that I’m guilty of myself.

    1. I may or may not have been personal experience with all the stuff on this list… live and learn.

  4. Didn’t want to do it this morning, but I forced myself out the door and I’m glad I did

  5. Guilt is toxic. Hard to leave behind. But friends and family pave the way to a brighter today

  6. The season for halos is approaching. Pay kindness forward before it is expected.

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