If you’re not training for the space program, why are you eating packaged meals?
If you’re old enough to remember Tang, a powdered orange flavored drink mix introduced in 1957 and soon thereafter advertised as “the drink of astronauts,” you’ll remember a time when eating packaged “food-like products” was a complete novelty. This was of course something you’d only do if you had absolutely no access to REAL food – e.g. in outer space
Let’s be clear, this product was not especially healthy – but if John Glenn drank it on a Mercury mission, then people could overlook that fact and give it a try. Of course due to its high sugar content and the associated aura of space flight and science, kids like me loved it.
Looking back, this moment marked the start of the “Manufactured Food Marketed as Scientific Ingredient Mixture” era, where the specific benefits of a particular nutrient or the simple practicality of a product (e.g., lasts for years without spoiling) was used as a “cover” to justify its artificial nature, and to obscure its lack of nutritional value.
Fast forward 50 years, following an arms race of manufacturers producing more and more elaborate food-like products, and the landscape of American nutrition has been transformed. Foods from all categories are being “engineered” in laboratories to be appealing without regard to healthfulness, then marketed based on the presence (or absence) of specific nutrients. Against this modern backdrop, it is easy to see why people may fail to recognize that eating packaged diet foods as a way to lose weight and regain health is the exact OPPOSITE of what they should be doing.
By contrast, it is very unlikely that anyone living in the 1950’s or 1960’s would ever have put up with the generally horrible tasting packaged diet foods sold today, or even the concept of purposely avoiding real food – without regard to the supposed nutritional value of those fake foods.
Beyond the “science experiment” feel to packaged diet food programs, there are a few very big problems with this approach to weight loss, as used by Jenny (Craig), Medifast, Nutrisystem and others.
Problem #1: Trains You to Keep Eating Artificial Foods
Any responsible weight loss program should have as a primary objective the retraining of participants to eat properly. In the case of packaged food plans, your training is nothing of the sort. In fact, packaged artificial foods are a PRIMARY CAUSE of the obesity problem in the U.S. Far from breaking you out of the pattern of eating unhealthy packaged products, such diets actually reinforce this behavior. And, because their packaged products are branded or exclusive to them, the hope of these artificial diet food companies is to get you to consume their products for a long time – how could you figure out how to ever replicate those products yourself with real food if you need to lose or maintain your weight?
Problem #2: Trains You to Be Lazy About Food Selection
There is of course the argument that eating packaged diet foods is “smart”, because they are so convenient. But really, I believe the word “thoughtless” is a much better characterization. Just eating the package they tell you, when they tell you, may get you through one of these programs, but it will give you absolutely no insight into food selection, portion control or sustainable dietary structure – the daily decision-making skills necessary to succeed in the long-run.
Problem #3: Trains You to Keep Eating Unhealthy Food Types
“Treats” are fine once in a while, but for many who are overweight, they are eaten far too often. Rather than responsibly working with clients to overcome this problem, packaged diet food companies simply allow you to eat artificial versions of unhealthy foods (like fake brownies) so that you don’t have to change your behavior at all. This once again REINFORCES the wrong behavior, and fails to make people take responsibility for good decisions. Further, it exposes the inability of these companies to deal with the underlying causes of cravings, blood sugar instability and other metabolic problems that underlie the sweet-seeking behavior (for more on this topic, see Blog Post: Artificial Cheesecake Anyone?).
These artificial diet food companies completely ignore the fact that in your real post-diet life, you should be prepared to plan and shop for meals properly with real foods, cook this real food correctly, understand the impact of particular foods on your own metabolism and physiology, and navigate our actual and very challenging food environment to find the healthy foods available to you. If you can’t do these things by the end of your weight loss program, and fall back to eating packaged foods, any weight gain will be reversed – and quickly. And this is of course the story we all hear so often.
So when you’re selecting a weight loss program, remember that it is not just the short term weight loss benefit you’re seeking – it is the opportunity to successfully build the new habits and skills that create a healthy, long-term lifestyle based on enjoyment of real food.
Paul Amoruso, CEO