December 2, 2008

In The News: Are You Calorie Blind?

This New York Times article -- centered around a French marketing expert and American attitudes towards food and nutrition -- makes the following case: health claims like "trans fat free" and "low fat" create a "health halo," providing consumers with a false sense of security, and ultimately making them more susceptible to overeating.

When random Americans in a nutritionally conscious Brooklyn neighborhood were asked to estimate the number of calories in an Applebee's meal, they overshot by an average of 100 calories.

Good news so far.

However, when that meal included two crackers labeled "trans fat free," those additional 100 calories went seemingly unnoticed!

Furthermore, the total caloric count of that meal received lower estimates than that of the cracker-less photograph.

Meanwhile, "[foreign tourists in Times Square] correctly estimated that the meal with crackers had more calories than the meal without crackers."

Sounds simple (more food = more calories), but this French professor of marketing contends that health halos can blind us from seeing the larger picture.

The theory is that foreigners, most of whom stem from countries where nutrition and weight loss mainly concerns calories (rather than specific nutrients), are not deceived by what Marion Nestle calls "calorie distractors."

What is a calorie distractor, you ask?

Any kind of claim that makes you forget the total caloric impact of what you are eating (i.e.: tortilla chips containing a mere sprinkle of flaxseed and soy protein, or Gummi candies with as much ALA Omega-3 as four walnuts.)

The article also mentions a most fascinating experiment conducted by this French researcher and Brian Wansink last year.

"After giving people a chance to order either a Big Mac or a 12-inch Italian sandwich from Subway, the people ordering the subway sandwich [which has more caloric than a Big Mac] were more likely to add a large nondiet soda and cookies to the order, end[ing] up with meals averaging 56 percent more calories than the meals ordered from McDonald’s."

This article cements a lot of the concepts commonly discussed in this blog. Let's recap:

1. Forget about "good" and "bad" foods. Instead, focus on the big picture. A donut and coffee breakfast is not worth fretting about if it only happens once a week.

2. Above all, think calories. Whole wheat pasta covered in 500-calorie Alfredo sauce is not a healthier choice than that same amount of "white" pasta accompanied by 100 calories of marinara sauce.

3. Don't be fooled by claims of "a day's worth of vitamins" or "x milligrams of Omega 3" on boxes of high-calorie, sugar and sodium laden junk foods. You might as well down a Centrum pill in between bites of a King Size Snickers bar.

Remember -- the less processed your diet, the less you have to worry about scavenging the supermarket aisles for sugar-free, vitamin fortified, and low sugar Frankenfoods.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

The thing that most people are missing is in your very last paragraph: "the less processed your diet, the less you have to worry about scavenging the supermarket aisles for sugar-free, vitamin fortified, and low sugar Frankenfoods." I gained 20 lbs after I graduated college and started working at my first "desk job". I had been trying to lose it for two years with no success, while eating some of those "frankenfoods".

Then one day I had an a-ha moment that changed everything. I was doing it all wrong. I started to eliminate the processed foods from my diet. I stopped eating the sweets that people brought to the office unless it was something really good that I would seek out on my own (case in point, the tray of cookies that mysteriously appeared a few minutes ago that my co-workers are mindlessly eating. I couldn't care less.) Now on any given night the focus of my plate is vegetables, beans and whole grains and meat or dairy is more like a garnish. If I eat dessert, it's usually whole grain or a dark chocolate square. I even signed up for a CSA type delivery service recently so that I always have fresh organic fruits and veggies on hand. No excuses. And now that I am down to my college weight again, I could revert back to my old ways, but why? Unprocessed foods taste so much better, they're healthier, they cost less and they actually fill you up. I don't want to go back.

So now I'll get off my soap box, but I get so frustrated watching people eat sugar free syrup and sugar free cookies and fat free ranch or low carb this and that and saying "it's not that bad." It shouldn't be "not that bad," it should be GOOD. Just eat real food.