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    Why “Eat This, Not That!” Is Not “All That”

    The Eat This, Not That! books, co-authored by Men’s Health editor-in-chief David Zinczenko and nutrition editor Matt Goulding, spawned from a popular monthly feature in Men’s Health magazine and quickly became best-sellers (last year, the Eat This, Not That! iPhone app achieved half a million downloads in two weeks.)

    As of now, there are nine different editions (most of them boasting a “the no-diet, weight-loss solution” banner somewhere on the cover), including Drink This, Not That! and a children’s version.  The common theme among all of them: pit two similar food products or fast food items against one another and select one as the better choice (AKA: award it the “eat this!” command).

    This is a gimmick meant solely to sell books, not communicate a message of health and proper nutrition.

    To begin with — and on a very ‘surface’ level — Eat This, Not That! operates under the assumption that people have the aforementioned choices available to them.  For instance, an item at Quizno’s may be declared “healthier” than a similar one at Subway.  How is this helpful to an individual who has to choose between, say, Subway and Burger King?

    It also over-complicates matters.  In the event that fast food is the only choice available, one only needs to heed simple, standard advice: choose the smallest sizes available, have grilled or baked unbreaded items instead of fried and breaded ones, omit sauces, and so on and so forth.  If you are at a “fast food” place with table service (i.e.: Applebee’s), share an entree if you’re with someone else, choose vegetables as your side dish, etcetera.

    Mind you, those two critiques are the mere tip of the iceberg.  My main gripe with Eat This, Not That! is that it operates within a paradigm where highly-processed fast food is the norm.  Most of the books simply recommend one processed food over another.  Even worse, it fosters the illusion that one could feasibly eat at Subway, Applebee’s, and Chipotle in a regular manner and “be healthy”.

    The fact that the sole focus is on weight management is also worrisome.  Sure, when some items are branded with the “Not that!” label, a mention of their high sodium or sugar levels comes up (suggesting that, calories aside, these foods are also damaging to our health).  However, the “winning” food is usually a far cry from anything resembling a healthy choice.  As long as item X contains fewer calories (or less sugar or more fiber) than its competitor, it tends to “win”, no matter how heinous the ingredient list (I’ll provide concrete examples a little later.)

    Believe me, I understand the logic behind the books, as well as their popularity.  “But it’s good to know that Chain X’s grilled chicken has 250 more calories and 6 more grams of fat than Chain Y’s,” some say.  My response to that? If your consumption of fast food is minimal, then it’s a moot point.  Additionally, the comparisons are often confusing, and inconsistencies abound.  As one Amazon.com reviewer points out, Goldfish crackers are awarded an”Eat This” based on one comparison, but “Not That” when compared to another product.

    This entire series also operates on what appears to be an American slogan these days — “I’m too busy to eat healthy”.  There’s an implicit “you can’t help but eat Burger King on road trips, so we’re going to make this easy for you!”.  The “busy executives/stay-at-home-moms/students don’t have time for nutrition” argument reminds me of a client I co-counseled last year, who was a full-time truck driver.  He was 60 pounds overweight, with extremely high cholesterol and triglyceride values, and had recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

    He mentioned he felt particularly deflated because he was always on the road and all that was available to him was fast food.  The dietitian I conducted this counseling session with and I came up with an idea — turn part of his truck into a pantry.  We encouraged him to stock up on fresh fruits, whole grain crackers, healthful dips, canned tuna, nuts, and other snacks he enjoyed.

    A month later, he walked in, in different spirits.  He still had a ways to go in his journey, but he was already feeling better, enjoying his “truck pantry” and eating less fast food — and, by his own account, craving it less.  He even started carrying a cooler with ice in his truck so he could store more perishable items.  He ate fast food occasionally, but he realized there were other ways to fulfill his hunger.  Let me reiterate — this was an individual who did not have regular access to a kitchen or conventional grocery stores, and he still didn’t have to rely on fast food for all his meals.

    Eat This, Not That! also utilizes a tactic I particularly loathe — the “nutritionists are just so darn confusing!” meme.  In the first tome of the series, the authors tell us that “it sometimes seems as if the internal politics of the Middle East are easier to understand than the latest thinking on nutrition.”

    Really?  Funny, because standard nutrition advice (“focus on plant-based foods”, “watch your intake of added sugars”, “eat fiber-rich foods”) has been pretty standard for decades.  It’s the fad diets that confuse people, as well as the contradictory articles published in the likes of Men’s Health (where one minute, soy is a perfectly fine “muscle food”, and the next it has the potential to feminizes men, and should therefore be avoided at all costs).

    Eat This Not That! also falls prey to a fatal flaw — in its obsession with numbers and figures, it often overlooks ingredients.

    Small Bites Twitter follower @musicbrainbooks sent me this link, in which Eat This, Not That! team reveals their picks for the best and worst cereals.  Per their guidelines, the best cereal is General Mills’ Fiber One Original.  It is so good, in fact, that it is described as “the gold standard”, to which readers are urged to “add sweetness with a bit of fresh fruit.”

    Come again?  I’m supposed to buy that a cereal made with corn oil — most likely from genetically modified corn — and aspartame (read this article to familiarize yourself with its horrors) is a gold standard?  Have standards really sunk that low?

    Consider, too, the Eat This, Not That!Best and Worst Halloween Candy” feature, in which Brach’s Candy Corn is listed as the healthiest seasonal candy (at 70 calories and 14 grams of added sugar for 11 pieces — that’s over a tablespoon of added sugar, by the way).  Really?  In what universe does this ingredient list merit a spot in any “best of”/”eat this!” list?

    Sugar, Corn Syrup, Salt, Honey, Soy Protein, Gelatin, Confectioner’s Glaze, Dextrose, Artificial Flavor, Titanium Dioxide Color, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 3, Blue 1.

    The first four ingredients are sugars and salt, the flavor is artificial, and it contains four different artificial petroleum-derived dyes.  And I’m being told to eat it?  Why?  Because it’s fat-free?

    Much like Hungry Girl (read my thoughts on her here) Eat This, Not That! perpetuates the myth that health is simply about choosing the option that is less caloric or has six fewer grams of fat.  It often ignores ingredient lists and promotes foods that are more “not as bad as this other thing we’re comparing it to” and less “this is good for you!”.  Does America really need a book highlighting a Whopper with Cheese as the option people should choose?  Save yourself some well-earned money and just take this simple approach: eat fast food, candy, and thick milkshakes sparingly, if at all.

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    7 Comments

    1. Joob said on April 25th, 2011

      Well.put. Thank you so much for this post.

      Every time I have picked up a copy of “Eat This, Not That” I have had the same thoughts. The “Eat This” option is almost never a good one and one I would not ever eat.

    2. Ken Leebow said on April 25th, 2011

      Agreed and nice review.

      I do receive its free email. The only reason: To observe how terrible the “Not That” food is. Of course, the “Eat This” alternative is typically pretty bad.

      When he’s on TV, it’s pretty comical because he advises the viewer the amount of weight that can be lost by choosing the “better” alternative. My assumption: If you choose the “Eat This” food, you will not lose weight nor will you gain health.

      However, as an author of a successful book series, I do admire its business franchise.

    3. Norma said on April 25th, 2011

      Great post; I’ve flipped through one version of “Eat This, Not That” at a friend’s house and was also thinking, I wouldn’t eat either of them! And agree with your Hungry Girl post as well; so sick of the whole reliance on packaged processed foods and the thinking that “low cal”, “diet” fake foods are somehow a better choice.

    4. Seth said on April 26th, 2011

      It’s sad this popular book series seems to assume our choices are between junk and more junk. Do we all live in a Food Court? But it’s not surprising for anyone who has read Men’s Health and has seen how low their expectations of readers are.

      The bigger problem which Andy references is that the books focus on tactics and factoids rather than healthy eating patterns. The books compare two seemingly random food choices, which may or may not even exist on menus 6 months from now, and declare one of them the winner. How is anyone supposed to learn from that and carry it forward in everyday eating? They’re not; they’re just supposed to look at the pictures and buy the next edition when it comes out.

    5. Andy Bellatti said on April 26th, 2011

      Excellent points, Seth.

    6. Eszter Erdelyi said on May 10th, 2011

      It is not the first time that I read an article from you and I feel that I went through similar thoughts/analysis, except could not express it half so eloquently!

      When I first found the Eat This Not That series, and evaluated it for helpfulness for parents to feed their kids healthier, I had some positive experiences to go on. My kids enjoyed the exercise of looking through the pictures and pointing out alternatives in the store. In addition to developing the Feeding Your Kids program, we were personally in the phase of reading labels and discovering for example that a lot of products contain sugar/HFCS when we did not even suspect it, (bread, chicken broth, pasta sauce, hamburger)and a lot of label inconsistencies, such as not adding up… Over the last 3 years, we dropped several products entirely from what we eat, (cereal, flavored yoghurts, and you guessed it, store bought broth and pasta sauce, albeit we still buy bread…) and if we looked at an Eat This Not That suggestion today, we would deem it completely irrelevant to how we choose what we eat.

      I feel somewhat similar about putting vegetable puree into meals. At the beginning, when we introduced bean or zuccini puree in brownies it got us started, but three years later we eat beans and zuccini in everything, (pasta, soup, salad, rice meals) and one of my kids will go as far as pick it out from the meal and leave the pasta or rice on the plate, so “hiding” would be counterproductive, to say the least.

      So perhaps this can be also said about the ETNT series: at its best, it could contribute to beginning a learning: start questioning what is called on the front of the box. I find it humorous that it is lost on the sponsors and the franchise, that if users take this first step successfully, it very logically leads to questioning the whole convenience/boxed food universe, as several of your readers and amazon comments attest to. However, at its worst, it is just applying another layer of the same old marketing and advertising techniques as “food” manufacturers already do to persuade us to buy more product. Them posing as a “moral agent” is what I find questionable. But I could not express it as well as you did.

      Luckily, we eat the sweet potato hummus (our all time super favorite from your site) instead of That, and advise every parent in the free Feeding Your Kids program to do so too. Thank you.

    7. Andy Bellatti said on June 27th, 2011

      Ezter,

      Just seeing your thoughtful comment now. Thank you for sharing your experience and for the kudos. You make a good point about ETNT being, at best, a short-term training-wheels program for beginning to decode food, rather than “the real deal”.

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