There's No Such Thing as "Free" . . .

Friday, December 5, 2008 20 comments

(Photo credit: Roboppy/Flickr)**
Following the news that fundraising bake sales in California schools could soon be history due to well-meaning food legislation (read my post Save the Bake Sale!) comes this recent New York Times article proving that, once again, no good deed goes unpunished:
Health Halo Can Hide the Calories
(New York Times, 12/2/08)

"If you're a well-informed, health-conscious New Yorker who has put on some unwanted pounds in the past year, it might not be entirely your fault. Here's a possible alibi: The health halo made you do it . . . [Pierre Chandon] has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox. Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?" (Read the full article here)

The Good . . . 

According to Dr. Chandon, a marketing professor at INSEAD in France, we've been fooled (or have fooled ourselves) into overeating because of a perception that certain foods and restaurants are 'healthy'. He and Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, have conducted numerous studies showing how food marketing "imbues [food] with a health halo that magically subtracted calories" through such practices as fast food restaurants trumpeting 'healthier' french fries because they're not cooked in trans-fat oils. Believing that we are eating well, we feel free to chow down, as Dr. Wansink notes in his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,
"The average Sub[way] diner thought he or she was eating 495 calories, but instead ate 677 - 34% more than he or she thought. [They] ate under the illusion that everything they touched was good for them . . . We want to say, 'Looks healthy to me,' so we can pile on the rest."
But it's not only advertisers and marketers who burnish this halo - our politicians also contribute to the effect when they pass well-intentioned legislation, such as banning the use of trans fats in New York city restaurants, that produce unanticipated results. 

. . . the Bad . . . 

The article calls it the 'health halo' but it is actually a perfect example of the "Peltzman Effect", named after Sam Peltzman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His 1975 study on the effects of seatbelt laws on driver behavior argued that mandating safety features with the intention of protecting people unintentionally spurs them to engage in more risky behavior precisely because the regulations make them feel safer.

Just as we search for the one magic diet that works for everyone, we want to point the finger at a single cause for obesity and other dietary-related chronic illnesses. However, by focusing on a single culprit for America's ever-expanding waistline - whether it's saturated fat, carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrup or trans fats - and attempting to control its consumption through legislation, we ignore other factors such as portion control and physical activity. Lulled into thinking that the problem is solved, we blissfully take it as a license to eat at will. 


. . . and the Ugly Truth.

What it's really doing is pinning the tail on all the animals in the barn except the donkey: too many calories. High consumption of substances such as trans and saturated fats have been shown to increase the risks of coronary heart disease but even foods that are free of these ingredients can lead to weight gain if we don't watch the amount we eat. To this end, not all legislation and marketing have been completely off the mark - NYC's requirement that restaurants post nutritional information have made diners there more conscious (read the article "Calories Do Count" at nytimes.com) and those '100-calorie' packs of favorite treats such as Oreos cookies can help with portion control. 

Being aware of our balance of energy consumption and expenditure - how many calories we consume through food and how much we burn through regular body functions and physical exercise - is the primary key to maintaining a healthy weight. To find out what your daily calorie requirement is, check out the Mayo Clinic's Calorie Calculator

Don't be seduced by the '[insert ingredient here]- free' labels splashed across food packages or the television ads that bestow a mantle of health on fast food restaurants. Remember, there's no such thing as a 'free' lunch.

**Updated 3/15/2012: In the original post published on 12/5/2008, I used a photograph which I credited to the source but did not actually have permission from the photographer to use. The new photo that replaces it above is used under a Creative Commons license.

20 comments:

  • Daily Spud said...

    Hear, hear!

    So many of us are lulled into a false sense of healthiness by "fat-free" and other put-your-health-claim-here labels. We will very often believe something is healthy because we want to believe it is so, and those in the business of food marketing are reluctant to have us believe otherwise.

    It would be nice to get beyond the health hype and back to a common sense way of thinking about what we eat and what it is our bodies need.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    It's a wonder that the most straightforward, low-cost, no-special-equipment-needed strategy to health (eat in moderation and exercise) is ignored. I fall into the trap of blaming my 'lifestyle' - "I'm too busy to cook!", "It's too cold outside to walk", "I can shop, watch movies, do online research, etc. from the comfort of home". I remind myself the healthier I keep my body, the longer I can enjoy the pleasures of life - including eating!

  • Chef E said...

    Great post...I have so many people tell me when I got back on my exersize and portion control plan say...oh wait until after the holidays...start now! We can still eat what we want (lots of veggies) as long as we leave out the junk food (sodas), drive thru's, and eat the rest in moderation...ooops repeating myself :)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Chef E - In the past, I would justify 'waiting' to start a healthy regimen or 'accepting' that I'll gain weight during the holidays. At the risk of being seen as a poor hostess, I excused myself from some family activities during Thanksgiving to get a workout in and I honestly believe I enjoyed the holidays more b/c of it!

    Nutrition - Thanks! As a nutritionist, I'm sure that one of the most basic principles you teach your clients is achieving that energy balance.

  • runningwithfood.com said...

    Fabulous post - thanks for sharing! This is exactly why I try to eat most of my foods in the form in which they originally come (whole grains, vegetables + fresh fruit) and not as many that come wrapped in a pretty little package.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Running With Food - It's so easy to rely on clever marketing to do our thinking for us. I admit to resorting to packaged foods on occasion but I'm learning so much more about different foods by preparing them myself!

  • Gina said...

    While your point is well taken, and this may sound cynical, I doubt there were a lot of people out there gorging themselves on french fries who stopped when the found out there were trans fats in them. On the same token, I don't know anyone who has decided to start eating more fast food fries just because they no longer have trans fats.

    I agree that sugar-free, fat-free, and...anything-free is really just a bunch of bullshit that is a marketing ploy to get you to buy a product. We don't need to be eating 90% of this crap that is on our grocery's shelves, let alone the crap that they serve at fast food joints. What is the most ridiculous is that for some products, the "fat-free" stuff actually has more calories because they have to pump more sugar in to make it taste good. Ridiculous!

    We have been raised to live in the dark about our food. I really believe that if people realized where their food comes from, how much more they were consuming than what they required, and how nutrient deficient their diets are, that people would be completely blown away. But its easier to be ignorant, isn't it? Plus, this way, manufacturers make money exploiting the naivety of its consumers.

    Or maybe this all isn't your point at all and I just got all crazy on your post. If so then sorry :)

  • Gina said...

    Hey, I got your blog comment :) I get my calorie calculations from the Recipe Calculator on Sparkrecipes.com! It's pretty handy as I'm pretty obsessive about my calorie intake (if you couldn't tell by my last comment!)

  • Sistercooks.blogspot.com said...

    Amen- people look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them yes I eat cookies and things, but I tend to eat homemade stuff, and try to make the bulk of my meals veggies. Someone complained to me how lethargic and depressed they feel on a low carb diet, but apparently its the only way to go, and told me I have no idea what I am talking about when I told them that our bodies need carbs to survive and to keep our serotonin levels normal. People want a magic fix, and just don't want to work at anything... but that's just my opinion...

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Heather - thanks!

    Gina - No need to be sorry! You've made excellent points. And I completely agree that we all need to be more aware of the principles of nutrition and the origins and processes involved in getting food to the table. I'm a proponent of instituting any kind of nutrition education beginning at the elementary school level. I don't know what health and phys ed classes at the high school level are like today but given the junk food consumption, obesity rates, and increasing incidences of Type II diabetes among teens, we need to reach them before they carry those eating habits into adulthood and become too complacent.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Gina - Talk about obsessive: I measure out my morning yogurt and cereal! Thanks for sharing the info re: Recipe Calculator.

    Sistercooks - That's my opinion, too! As you noted, carbs are our bodies' primary energy source and we need fat to, among other things, help us absorb some vitamins. Cholesterol is vilified but we need a certain amount for brain function. When we eliminate carbs or eat only proteins, we upset the balance of nutrients that truly keep us healthy.

  • Lori said...

    Great post. I love all the research by Dr. Wansink. He's really brought a lot of important information to the public eye.

    It is such a multi-faceted problem. The true solution for me is to stop obsessing about food whether it is compulsive overeating or worrying about every gram and mg of a nutrient. I just feel we have to develop a healthy relationship with eating, food and exercise.

    Another thing is less fake food. Eat the real stuff, leave the boxes, packaged mixes and other similar items behind no matter what they say - even organic, whole grain, yadayadayda. Processed isn't food.

    I've been through a lot with weight, diet and nutrition - had my own struggles weight, got degrees in the field. I find focusing on total wellness including mindful eating and exercise is the best method of health for me.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Lori - Thanks for your insight! I have to admit that I do fuss and worry about calories which sometimes prevents me from simply enjoying my food. But the best things about starting my blog were that that it makes me consider food more appreciatively and it has ignited my enthusiasm for home-cooking. Baby steps still, but in the right direction!

  • Gabe's Girl said...

    Great Blog posting! We try to eat healthy. For my family, that means veggies and chicken,nothing fried or cream-based or we try to eat in moderation. When I was younger working fast food, I used to laugh, when people would order double cheeseburgers, large fries, and a medium diet coke. Why stop there? Oh, well. Thanks for stopping by.

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    If I ever see a package with "***-free" or "fortified with ***" I assume that there is something else in the package I certainly don't want to eat. There's a reason green beans and watermelons don't come with a label that says transfat-free. The food companies have gotten quite clever with selling us what basically is corn or soy.

    While I agree that the trans fat ban in New York has produced unanticipated results (negative and positive) it has raised an important issue. Should certain things we currently eat be banned for consumption?
    As consumers we are told that we vote with the dollars we spend, but there are many decisions that are made further up the chain that limit choice in food. There are also many places in the world (even in certain neighborhoods here in London) where edible fresh fruit and veg are difficult to come by. People living in those areas are often eating fastfood and packaged food, not by choice but by circumstance.
    Great post - these issues must continue to be debated!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Gabes' Girl - I know what you mean: I never understood the point of fat-free Twinkies!

    Gastroanthropologist - You've brought up an excellent point regarding ACCESS to healthy foods. We are now mostly aware of the benefits of eating organically, locally and sustainably but these discourses are often conducted among us who have adequate financial means and a variety of food suppliers in close proximity. I must keep in mind not to tar a person for making bad food choices when in fact they have no choices at all.

  • curiousdomestic said...

    The thing that has helped me most is thinking about my Grandmothers. Nearly everything they ate came from sustainable single-family farming and homecooking with no preservatives. They'd hardly recognize some of the "food" sold in grocery stores today.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Curious Domestic - It's so true! I admit to relying on a lot of convenience goods (canned beaned, tomatoes, etc.) but have learned that home-cooking from scratch is really satisfying and more delicious. Still, when we were living in apartments, there was no way for us to even consider growing anything for ourselves (even our sad little tomato plant couldn't grow well - our apt. was north-facing). Thanks for stopping in!

 

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