The following foods carry a “healthy” label from the manufacturers: Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Cocoa Pebbles, McDonald’s Happy Meals, Burger King Kids Meals, certain frozen corn-dog-and-fries dinners, and…..you get the picture. As people push to get more fruits and vegetables onto their plates, food companies have added just enough of something—maybe increased whole wheat, for example–to justify the “healthy” claim. In part, the claim on the label attracts people to these foods, which aren’t really so healthy. Also, it allows the food companies to keep on advertising the foods to children—otherwise, new laws would try to stop them.
How can knowing this help you eat more sanely? Or lose weight? Several recent books and movies have drawn our attention to alarming food company practices (see below). These practices keep us eating foods that are fattening, possibly harmful to health, and definitely appetite-stimulating. That means they’re hard to not overeat. Once aware of this, we hope to start making better choices. We may consider how to minimize or avoid processed, sugar-added foods. By definition, though, this is easier said than done. If a food is indeed engineered to make you want more, then you’re probably going to have to struggle to eat less of it.
There’s another way that thinking about food manufacturing that can help you along the sane eating, weight-smart path, however. For it’s hard not to get repulsed, and angry, when you learn about what these practices can do to our health, and to the health of our children, and to the environment. Who wants to support that? Knowing what I know, I don’t feel good buying products from certain manufacturers (you can check on many companies quickly and easily with the handy little Shopping for a Better World guidebook, for starters). And I don’t feel good being part of a system that’s hurting things.
I don’t think it’s possible for any of us to be perfect—for most of us there will always be the occasional fast food, the items you love too much to leave, the items that cost too much to substitute. But doing better, even if only a little bit, or here and there, can make a real difference. The more you cut out highly processed items, which usually contain added sugars and poor-quality fats, the less you’ll support the systems that push unhealthy food. And the better you’ll be taking care of your own body and weight. This is true every time you make a better choice, whether once a week or more. Aim to eliminate one item from your weekly food budget to start if it all feels overwhelming.
For some, thinking about the food industry won’t shake up their eating habits, even if they wish it would. It can be hard to resist treats or stick with new diet plans. Some do find it easier, though, when they stop thinking in terms of willpower, deprivation, and warding off cravings. They find they can do it to say “no” to industries that disregard our health. To help make a cleaner planet and stop the sale of junk food to kids. Those motivations gear us away from our personal shortcomings and give us something positive and constructive to do.
And if you end up losing weight in the process, that’s usually an excellent fringe benefit.
Here are some related titles:
Kessler, David, The End of Overeating, (Rodale Press; 2009)
Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (Penguin, 2006) – young people’s edition also available
Pollan, Michael, In Defense of Food, (Penguin, 2008)
Pollan, Michael, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (Penguin, 2009)
Wansink, Brian, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, (Bantam, 2006)
Weber, Karl, editor, Food Inc: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer, and What You Can Do About It (Participant Media, 2009) – DVD also available