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.