Jan 22

Creating a Healthy Image for Junk Food

Since last August, I’ve been on a diet, and I’ve managed to lose over 30 pounds. My secret? I stopped eating bread, rice, cereal and potatoes as staples and relegated them to the “once in a while” category instead. (I also switched to diet soda and started exercising more regularly, but I should note that when I’ve done those two things before in combination with my normal vegetarian diet, it hasn’t been enough to help me shed any weight).

Why do I bring this up? Well, for one, it’s because I’m as surprised as anyone that I’ve lost weight, because the process has been fairly effortless. The amount of exercise I’ve been doing hasn’t been excruciating – jogging a mile or two three times a week and riding my exercise bike on the off-days – and because I’ve been substituting in fruit, nuts, cheese, pickles and carrots every time I need a snack, I’ve been able to eat fairly well through this diet.

But for another, it’s that I’ve become attuned to how unhealthy a lot of the so-called “healthy” food we eat really is. The problem is that we, as consumers, really don’t know a lot about what’s good for us, and we’re susceptible to marketing on the topic. All it really takes is a picture of a slim woman with a ponytail wearing spandex doing some yoga, jogging or just standing there, smiling and looking fit and the packaging just seems to scream “healthy!” to anyone who’s looking.

There are limits to the sorts of healthy claims that can be made, of course — I doubt you’ll ever see the most indulgent foods making a healthy claim – but there are plenty of examples of dubious products trying making claims that they’re healthy and, by and large, succeeding because consumers really don’t know the difference.

Calories are generally used as a means of tracking diets, but I’ve found that calories are one of those areas where consumers find it easy to cheat or mislead themselves. For example, if you’re on a 2000-calorie diet and you have 2400 calories in a day, it really doesn’t seem like very much, right? But if you do that every day, you’ll not only fail to lose any weight, but put on a pound or two quite easily every year. What’s more, it’s not hard to exceed that calorie limit – all it takes is a fountain soda, a sugary coffee drink or a few sweet treats throughout the day and you start to fall off the wagon quickly. Having a calorie “budget” is a good way to fail at your diet, because human beings aren’t very good at sticking to budgets.

So instead, I’ve started looking at everything I eat in terms of sugar cubes, candy bars and slices of bread. The first two are fairly common when you’re counting calories, but the third might surprise you. As it happens, I like bread a lot, and despite the old saying that, “man cannot live on bread alone,” I’m pretty sure I could live mostly on bread and be pretty happy. But bread is made with flour and sugar, which means it’s almost entirely comprised of simple carbohydrates – the nutrients that the body is most likely to convert to fat.

So instead of thinking about calories, I think about sugar cubes. One cube of cane sugar equals 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates. A slice of white bread, which has around 65 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates, is equivalent to four sugar cubes. Whole wheat bread, by comparison, is only worth three sugar cubes’ worth of carbohydrates. In either case, eating a sandwich, with two pieces of bread, is equivalent to eating the same amount of sugar I’d find in a full-size candy bar. (Two slices of wheat bread is the same as a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or six sugar cubes; two slices of white bread is the same as a Snickers bar, or eight sugar cubes.)

I’m not sure about you, but I’d rather have the candy than the bread.

There are tons of other foods that people eat as a part of their everyday diet that offer a similar trade-off. Many of these foods brand themselves as being healthy despite the fact that they’re really not. Here are a few examples.

Example 1: Breakfast cereals

There are tons of breakfast cereals out there that clearly aren’t healthy, but there are a surprising number that try to position themselves as being “part of a balanced breakfast” which is, as we all know, “the most important meal of the day.” The problem is that most cereals are made out of the same ingredients as bread, which means that they’re not really all that good for you if you’re trying to lose weight (or keep it off).

One of the brands that’s long been associated with health is Cheerios. As breakfast cereals go, it’s one of the better choices, with only 100 calories per cup and very little added sugar (one gram). But the non-sugary part still translates into 17 grams of simple carbohydrates. And a cup of Cheerios is a smaller portion than many adults will eat for breakfast. My experience is that many bowls in a normal kitchen are actually big enough for two cups, so if you are in the habit of filling your bowl up with Cheerios every morning, you are essentially eating a candy bar’s worth of carbohydrates for breakfast.

The same is true for Wheaties (comparable nutrition information to Cheerios), Total and Special K, though the latter two at least have a number of vitamins sprayed onto them during processing. We won’t get into the more sugary cereals (which include cereals you might not even think about, like Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats), but suffice it to say that many of them in their recommended serving size have the same number of carbohydrates as a candy bar, and in some cases, far more.

Oatmeal is another product that seems healthy, but which is, in fact, loaded with sugar and carbohydrates. One cup of oatmeal has somewhere between 25-30 carbohydrates to start. Often, another three to four sugar cubes’ worth of sugar (or half a candy bar) are added in. A cup of oatmeal can have as much sugar as a single Pop-Tart. And before you go on believing that Pop-Tarts are healthy, consider that they come in packs of two, and that eating two frosted strawberry pop-tarts is the equivalent of having two Snickers bars for breakfast.


Example 2: Sports Drinks

Sports drinks (and their cousins, energy drinks) are frequently consumed by people who believe that they’re living healthy lifestyles. There are some benefits to sports drinks (such as providing electrolytes to replenish the body more quickly after a tough workout), but most of those benefits aren’t useful to anyone but the highest-performing athletes. In most other situations, it’s best to just drink water and have a piece of fruit.

Gatorade is the most common sports drink, an Vitaminwater is a competing brand that has a definite “healthy” image. But while these drinks might seem healthy, they’re not so different from drinking a can of Coke or Pepsi because it’s loaded with sugar. 8 ounces of Gatorade yields 14 grams of sugars. 8 ounces of Coca-Cola Classic or Pepsi yields 27 grams of sugars. Ounce for ounce, Gatorade and Vitaminwater are the healthier choices, but keep in mind that they’re designed to be consumed in larger quantities.

Vitaminwater has recently been under fire for marketing itself as healthy when it’s really not. Gatorade has weathered these storms as well. As it happens, Gatorade does has a “diet” brand called Propel that uses artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. It’s a far healthier choice because it adds some nutrients (and even electrolytes) into water without dumping in a bunch of sugar.


Example 3: Quick-Service / Fast Food

It’s hard to believe that anyone would believe that fast food could be healthy. And yet McDonald’s, in an effort to shed its unhealthy image a few years ago, has really aggressively pursued a healthy marketing agenda. They use the same tricks – skinny letters on menus, pictures of fresh salads, items that sound healthy when they’re really not (like instant oatmeal). McDonald’s even prints calories on the menu board now. But almost every item on the menu includes a bun or other type of bread (28 grams of carbohydrates), and the other signature items McDonald’s has to offer are french fries (29 grams of carbohydrates in the small bag size) and fountain Coca-Cola (27 grams of carbohydrates per 8 ounces consumed). So, a medium-sized 2 cheeseburgers value meal, which is one of the most popular choices, yields somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 grams of carbohydrates — the equivalent of about five Snickers bars.

McDonald’s is far from the only fast food restaurant to attempt to use a healthy image. Subway adopted a healthy image over a decade ago and it’s paid huge dividends in helping to establish the brand as a sort of counterweight to burger chains. And yet most of the six-inch subs contain around 50 grams of carbohydrates, with potato chips tacking on another 15 grams and a medium soda tacking on another 60-70. A five-dollar footlong sub, then, puts a diner into the same position they’d be in if they’d eaten at a restaurant like McDonald’s.

Incidentally, several people have gone on diets consisting of only Subway or McDonald’s food and actually lost weight. Their secret hasn’t been the food, however; it’s been sticking to the regular portions and not tacking on deserts, drink refills or extra sandwiches. Also, simply cutting out the sugary drinks (or switching to diet beverages) cuts out a third of the carbohydrates and calories from the meal.


My point in all of this is to point out that there are plenty of products that have been successfully marketed as healthy when, in fact, they’re not all that different from foods that are considered tremendously unhealthy, like candy. What’s even more perplexing is that some of these brands do offer healthier alternatives to the food they’re marketing, but rather than focusing on pushing these items as the healthy choice, they instead focus on making the most popular items seem like they’re better for you than they really are.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that consumers really don’t want to hear that they have to make healthier choices. They’d rather be all right with the choices they’re already making. It’s so much easier to hear that Cheerios are a healthy part of your day than to hear that you should avoid breakfast cereals altogether and focus on eating fruit and protein. After all, fruit and protein don’t come in a big yellow box with a logo that looks like a smile.* There’s comfort in good branding. And comfort is often preferable to making sacrifices for your long-term health.

*Actually, it occurs to me that bananas do look like a yellow smile if you lay them on their side. But Cheerios does such a better job of making that smile seem to mean something.