Thursday, May 07, 2009

Eat this, not that, and have a heart attack anyway because it's still junk food.

If you're hell bent on eating nothing but total and utter crap, boy have I got the books for you! They're called "Eat This, Not That", and they're some of the more recent in a long line of "diet" books that sell very well because they tell people what people want to hear.

And what is it, pray tell, that people want to hear? In a nutshell: "Don't stop eating junk food. And for the love of god, don't get off that couch at night! To be completely healthy, supermodel thin, and sexy/handsome, all you have to do is make this one teeny tiny insignificant change that you won't even notice (like eating this fast food burger instead of that fast food burger, or taking this new BREAKTHROUGH pill). It's that simple! Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?!"

And of course, it is.

The "Eat This, Not That" series basically works with the premise that the general public (and let's face it, the primarily overweight adult population of the United States) just isn't going to stop hitting up the McDonald's a few times a week. So why not tell them what the better options are there? And honestly when seen in that light they've kind of got a point. It's very hard to convince adults to change their habits. Even when they don't want to, people find themselves falling over and over again back into old bad eating habits - out of familiarity and comfort, out of convenience, or simply because it tastes good. So why not at least give them a little bit of education on how to get that burger fix with the least net damage?

Well, in my mind the problem even just from the single "personal health" perspective, which is the only narrow channel we seem to be traveling here, is twofold. First, it allows people to think that they really don't need to make a genuine change in their diets. And loves? If your diets predominately feature the high fat, high sugar, high cholesterol, uberprocessed foods featured in these books, YOU NEED TO CHANGE YOUR DIET. Period. Not a swap of one burger for the other. Perhaps try a swap of a fast food burger for some whole grains and raw vegetables once in a while! That might affect a real change... but it doesn't sell a whole lot of books.

Marion Nestle, Doctor of Nutrition and Public Health at NYU, seems to agree with me on this issue. In a recent response to questions from Eating Liberally regarding Oprah's endorsement of the KFC grilled chicken meal, she had the following to say:
Is a better junk food a good choice? Some would say that small nutritional improvements multiplied over an entire population will make an important difference to health. This is the philosophy behind shaving milligrams of sugar off of kids' breakfast cereals or adding a gram of fiber here and there.

But others, and I count myself among them, worry that such small changes merely create a "health aura"--the illusion that anything eaten in the vicinity of something healthful is automatically healthful too.

The second problem I can see is that even if the "that" choice is technically a "better" choice than the "this" - well, as I am so fond of saying, better is not the same as good. Bottom line? Anything that you choose at a fast food restaurant is unhealthy. It is not possible to make a good choice there. They do not sell food. They sell processed foodproducts. Fast food is to real food what cheeze-in-a-can is to smoked gouda. Not only is it not real food, but it's fake food so packed with fat, sugar, and salt that the companies who sell it are terrified for you to get ahold of their nutrition facts.

Now you're going to ask me about the salads. And our conversation is going to go like this.

"Well, did you order the salad?"


"Do you ever order the salads?"

"Um, No. But what if I did though? That's raw vegetables. It's salad! It's healthy!"

"Well, under the theoretical proposition that you would ever order one of the salads, would you put the dressing on it?"

"Of course. Salad without dressing is gross."

"Well then calorie, sugar, and fat wise, you might as well ordered a burger." (Southwest Salad with grilled chicken - because remember, grilled = healthy, plus one 1.5 oz serving of ranch dressing: 490 cal, 24g fat, 15g sugar. Quarter pounder with cheese? 510 cal, 26g fat, 9g sugar. Quarter pounder, no cheese? 410 cal, 19g fat, 8g sugar... 80 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 7 grams of sugar less than the "healthy" salad.)

"...Oh. But it's still raw vegetables though."

"Yes, but they're the very worst kind. They were grown 'conventionally' - that is, covered in pesticides from the time they were seedlings, or even before. Then they were picked long before they were ready to be eaten, and in the case of tomatoes they were ripened with gases after being shipped an average of 3000 or so miles. The longer the timespan between when a vegetable is picked and when you eat it, the less nutritional value it has left... and the vegetables in those salads are three weeks old or older by the time you'd get to eat them."

"But salads are healthy."

"I give up."

"So is yogurt. Yogurt has probiotics. They have yogurt parfaits; those must be healthy."

"Oh dear god. I have to go."

(I later send you an email explaining that introducing salads to the menu has caused a boost in sales for fast food joints like McDonalds - not because they're actually selling salads, but because since there are "healthy" options on the menu there's less of a stigma about going, despite the fact that once customers are through the doors they're still going to order a burger and fries. I also explain that the "probiotic" effects of yogurt are non-existent in the cheap, sugar-laden variety used by fast food joints, and that if you add granola (and you do, don't you?) there's just as much fat and sugar in those "healthy" yogurt parfaits as in a sundae. They're listed in desserts for a reason. I spare you the lecture on how cow's milk is a great food - for baby cows! - because you're not interested in that.)

But back to my original rant. Do I kind of hate the "Eat This, Not That" series? Yes, yes I do. Because they come from the same mentality that says, "I'm an environmentalist - I'm saving the planet because I changed my lightbulbs! I'm done, that's all I have to do!" It's practically a movement at this point, this belief that we can make real change in ourselves or in the world without actually doing anything differently at all.

The reality is this: if you are overweight and/or unhealthy, eating the standard American diet, and leading a sedentary lifestlyle, eating "this" instead of "that" may let you cut a few calories here and there. But in the long run it will not help you. In fact, buying into that mindset will hurt you, because as long as you do you will never make the real changes in your life that are necessary (yes, necessary) in order to become healthier.

And no, I'm probably never going to sell many books, because I'm not really about telling people what they want to hear.

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