Is "Health Food" Worse for You than Junk Food?
I've written about the evils of junk food in the past. I have jumped on that bandwagon that is happy to demonize the fast food industry. But after watching a 30-minute TV show on Showtime last week, I'm having something of a paradigm shift. Maybe I've been too hasty.
The Showtime show Bullsh*t! (the real title is not edited) takes a new subject every week and exposes lies, misconceptions, and propaganda on everything from sex and psychics to recycling and yoga.
The episode I happened upon was all about fast food. "This should be good" I thought, "how can they really tell us fast food is good for us?"
Well, they didn't. Not really. But what they did reveal made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. I have been one of those bloggers who was quite happy to attack McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, KFC and all those other household names in the fast food biz.
But when it comes down to it, what exactly have they done wrong?
Ok, let's look at this rationally for a second. The fast food giants make food that is not good for us. That's a fact. They usually don't deny that either, it's not easy to say that a double quarter-pounder with cheese and a pound of French fries is something your body needs. It's a treat. It should be viewed that way. (See also: Fast Food, Slow Food, and Your Dollars at Work)
However, as a treat, what's wrong with it? It's very tasty, it's cheap, there's a lot of it for your money, and you can get it quickly almost any time you want! It seems to me that the fast food industry has given us everything we have asked for as a nation, and we're now telling them off for it.
If a Big Mac cost $10, we'd complain. It's too expensive. If BK made healthy burgers from soy, we'd complain. We want meat, we want taste. If KFC refused to sell fried chicken, and only stocked grilled, we'd complain. We want to make choices, even if they're bad for us. And when we want to make those bad choices, fast food is there.
In a previous article, a long time ago now, I talked about Mindless Eating, a great book by Dr. Brian Wansink. He spends his days conducting experiments that reveal our true relationship with food, and he had some eye-opening things to say about fast food.
In one experiment, Dr. Wansink's lab was set up to resemble a restaurant, and he invited people to come in and try some food. In this case, a delicious chicken corn chowder. Oh, how the participants loved it. So delicious, so home-made, so succulent. They had no clue that the whole meal was made using ingredients from a KFC meal. One person actually quipped, and I'm paraphrasing a little "you can't get something like that from a fast food restaurant." Well, you can. Maybe not as a soup, but it's all exactly the same stuff.
Wansink noted that we have expectations of fast food and the establishments that serve it. Especially the big hitters like KFC and McDonald's. We actually believe that what they're serving is rotten, but it's cheap and it's quick.
But these corporations have spent billions of dollars making food that's tasty. They excel in it. If it wasn't tasty, no one would buy the food and the franchise would die. Yes, it contains salt, sugar, and fat. Yes, it contains preservatives. But it's tasty, it's designed that way.
In another experiment, to test these perceptions again, Wansink brought in two taco salads to two different groups. The first received the salad on a black plastic fast food tray, and were told that it came from a fast food restaurant.
The feedback was not good. The food was fatty and greasy. The dressing was too sweet. It was generally a cheap suckfest of a meal.
Next up, the exact same salad was served on a pristine white plate, along with an accompanying menu from the California Garden Café. The feedback took a huge turn. Now, the food was fresh and delicious. The dressing was lovely. The whole meal was heaven on a platter. But it was the same meal. All that had changed was the perception of the food. And it was enough to make people feel completely different about the meal.
More dangerous than all of that, though, was when they asked the two sets of diners what they thought the calorie count was of the salad. The first group guessed right, with very accurate guesses coming in at the 980-1000 calorie range. Spot on.
But when asked to estimate the meal from the Café, the calorie count dropped. And boy, did it drop. Guesses were around the 450-500 calorie mark, one person said 200! And that's the real danger here.
When we go to a fast food joint, our guard is up. We're primed — the calorie count of the meals is often displayed now — and we generally know that what we're eating is bad for us. When we eat somewhere else, like a "healthy café" or fancy restaurant, we believe we're getting better food and less fat. Not so. Not at all. As they said in the show, you don't see people trying to ban French and Italian restaurants, and yet they serve very fattening meals topped with creams, cheeses, and lots of butter and oil.
The problem here is that we have been selective with our criticism. We have targeted the fast food giants and warned everyone "hey, this stuff sucks, don't eat it!" But that's not going to stop people eating it, or making bad choices. However, we're at least educated about fast food. We know the calories, and the risks. Wansink says that in his experience, people underestimate the calories of a meal at a healthy restaurant by half. The fancy name equates to better food, and better food means less calories. How wrong can we all be?
So, take this as a warning. Fast food is still bad for you in excess, but as an occasional meal it's nothing to be afraid of. What you really need to look out for are the calories you're consuming from places like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and other health food stores and restaurants. The food could be just as bad for you, but you may end up eating twice as much. In effect, you're blinded by the presentation. Calories are calories and saturated fat is saturated fat. Not even a 3-star Michelin restaurant can change that.