The Fourth Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Outside Influences

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Jan. 24 2011 7:45 AM

The Fourth Obstacle to Sensible Eating: Outside Influences

Unfortunately, you are not the only one with a stake in what you eat. The food industry, diet and weight-loss industries, and health care industry want your money. Your family and friends have expectations about how you act and relate to them, and this includes the way you eat. The government's role is twofold: to protect the interests of both industry and citizens, and when those conflict, it is too often influenced by industry.

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Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

For me, the social forces can be the most challenging to navigate, because they occur within so many small personal interactions and involve the feelings of others. People spend a lot of time eating with others food is present at celebrations and holidays; we gather for dinners, lunches, and brunches; we go out for coffee, ice cream, pancakes and certain expectations for how we will eat go along with this.

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Family can be a big factor here. From our parents and grandparents we learn what to eat, which may be informed by religious, cultural, or political beliefs. It is through family that we learn to like certain foods or not and learn basic eating habits, etiquette, and what role food will play in our lives. When I was growing up, my family never ate cooked greens that I can recall. To this day, it's difficult for me to incorporate these extremely nutrient-rich foods into my diet.

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In daily life, one's friends can apply very subtle pressures. Not partaking of food at someone's house seems unfriendly. Sometimes friends or family feel betrayed or confused when we try to change our eating habits, as though rejecting the way they eat, the foods they provide, is rejecting them. Having special dietary needs can create discomfort or ill will at restaurants or people's homes. Your dieting can actually offend people, sometimes because it makes them feel bad about what they eat.

For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm not much of a drinker , simply because of preference, not because I have any sort of stance on drinking. People don't explicitly pressure me to drink, but some joke about it uncomfortably or repeatedly offer me drinks. If I say no, they almost always say, "Are you sure?" It makes them self-conscious about their drinking.

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People want you to eat with them it's a sign of fellowship and to like what they like. My husband offers me tastes of foods and drinks he enjoys, to share the experience with me. If I order a salad for dinner while he is ordering something he thinks is less "virtuous," he'll sometimes change his order. When I ask him why, he jokes, "You're not getting thin without me."

I'm guilty of applying these pressures too. When out-of-town friends visit, my husband and I take them to our favorite restaurants and advise them on what to order. We want to give them a pleasant experience, but there's also a controlling aspect to it I feel semi-offended when they don't take my suggestions.

And then, of course, there's the influence of the food industry. Food growers, producers, distributors, and sellers are businesspeople, first and foremost, who want to make money just like everyone else. Thus, they don't really care about your health and well-being. They want to sell you as much food as possible as frequently as possible at the highest price possible. They have various means of accomplishing this. They "add value" to foods by processing them. There's only so much you can make by selling an apple, but if you cut it up and put it in a plastic bag; or mash it up, add some sugar, and put it in a portable plastic cup; or shred it, sugar it, bread it, fry it in oil, and put it in a nice box in the frozen foods section, you can charge more. This is how the market has ended up with tens of thousands of processed food products.

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Manufacturers also label foods in tricky ways. They make portion sizes unrealistically small so calorie and nutrient counts appear sufficiently low. A pint of ice cream is supposed to contain four servings of half a cup each. I don't remember the last time I ate just a half-cup of ice cream probably because there never was one. Food companies also manipulate our perceptions by printing health claims prominently on their packages. When foods are criticized as unhealthy, instead of pulling products, the market alters them, creating " functional foods ," which tie an ingredient in the food to the prevention of a certain disease. In some cases, such health claims are irrelevant, because they tout a characteristic a food already naturally possesses (it's meaningless, for example, to say an oil is low-carb, when, in fact, all oils are fats and contain no carbohydrates), or are so qualified as to render them pretty much meaningless, like this one from a box of Cheerios: "Three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cheerios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Cheerios cereal provides 1 gram per serving." So if you are already eating a low-fat, low cholesterol diet, eating Cheerios will provide you 1 gram of a substance that might reduce the risk of heart disease. In her book What To Eat , Marion Nestle reveals "The real reason for health claims ... health claims sell food products." Forbes reports that these foods "masquerading as drugs are a booming $31 billion business in the U.S. alone."

Food labels also misdirect. Front and center on a General Mills Cocoa Puffs Cereal box are the words "Whole Grain: Guaranteed," but the ingredients list reveals the whole grain to be "whole grain corn" ( corn is one of the most overused foods in our country ). The next ingredient is sugar, followed by corn meal and corn syrup, which are two other corn products and one other form of sugar.* (The two main sweeteners are most likely divided this way so the "whole grain" can be listed first since ingredients are listed by weight.) One three-quarter-cup serving of the cereal still contains 10 grams of sugar* and encourages people to eat chocolate (or at least chocolate-flavored foods) for breakfast. Nonetheless, the health claim leads consumers to believe the cereal has health benefits, thus making them feel better about buying it and serving it to their kids or eating it themselves.

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Producers in just about every category of food give money to a board responsible for promoting the food and protecting its image. The boards finance some of the best, catchiest, and most unforgettable advertising campaigns: " Beef: It's What's for Dinner ," coined to combat the anti-red meat movement, is recognized by 88 percent of Americans ; " Pork: The Other White Meat ," created to convince people who'd switched from beef to poultry to try pork, increased pork sales by 20 percent in five years ; " The Incredible Edible Egg " was written to tout the nutritional advantages of eggs at a time when they were denounced for being a high-cholesterol food. " Got Milk ?" is recognized by 90 percent of Americans. There are even food libel laws in 13 states , giving food producers grounds to sue if one of their products is disparaged publicly and sales drop.

Even if you can cope with all these influences, then there are supermarkets, set up to entice you to buy as much as possible. The aisles are configured as a maze to keep you in the market as long as possible, to maximize shelf space, and to run you past as many products as possible. Supermarkets contain tens of thousands of products. The more variety, the more we see. The more we see, the more we buy. Food makers pay slotting fees for the most desirable shelf spaces: eye level for adults; bottom shelves for small kids; ends of aisles; and by the checkout counter, in the hopes that while you wait you'll be encouraged to make an impulse buy, which U.S. consumers spend more than $10 on every time they shop . Frequently purchased staples, like milk, are shelved at the back of the store, so even if you're running in for just a few items, you'll have to walk past hundreds or thousands of other products. Instead of making shopping easy, markets make it time-consuming and tempting.

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We are also inundated with advertisements for tempting foods. Yes, we are personally responsible for what we consume, but I look at it this way: If you were running a marathon and someone kept throwing marbles at your feet, eventually you would trip. If you see tempting food ads enough, eventually you will buy. Every week I fight the urge to buy a doughnut or go to a bakery. On the way to work I pass dozens of food sellers. And once I get to work there's the vending machine (dubbed the "Obese-a-tron" by my co-workers), which I'm convinced is an evil monster trying to destroy me with peanut M&Ms.

This week, I will focus on these external forces, how they affect me, and how to resist that influence.

Experiment No. 4: Being an Eating Ninja

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I will plan my eating ahead of time this week and prepare everything I eat myself. There will be no convenience buys, no Starbucks, and no premade food (except bread, pasta, cheese, and other staples people routinely buy or don't have the capacity to make themselves). I suppose I can eat brownies and such if I bake them.

I'll keep a log of the pressures I feel from friends, family, and co-workers and the temptations I see, smell, and hear about and how they affect me, and I'll do my best to be an eating ninja: to stick to my plan and not be swayed by outside influence.

Also see our Magnum Photos gallery on eating temptations .

*Correction, Jan. 25, 2011: This paragraph initially stated that corn syrup was the third ingredient in Cocoa Puffs cereal ingredient list. This was based on the panel of an old box. Cocoa Puffs has since updated their formula. It also said that the cereal contains 14 grams of sugar, also based on the panel of an old box. Cocoa Puffs has since reduced the serving size from 1 cup to three-quarters of a cup. An image of the old ingredients list was removed.

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