Book Review: Eat This, Not That (Supermarket Survival Guide)
There is certainly no shortage of books (or blogs, I suppose…. guilty as charged) trying to tell you what to eat. At least 75% of them can be sorted in to one of two bins before you take them to the curb for trash pickup: (1) Scientifically unfounded hogwash, or (2) the same basic message (eating less, exercising more and getting enough fruits and vegetables) wrapped up in a slick marketing program. Perhaps in a future post, I will list some current books and tell you which bins they belong in.
But once in a while, a book comes along that actually offers some practical, relevant advice and that clarifies more than it confounds. Surprisingly, the “Eat This, Not That” series by Men’s Health editor in chief David Zinczenko, along with the Food & Nutrition Editor Matt Goulding, fits this bill. I say ‘surprising’ because the most recent Supermarket edition has a fluorescent orange cover with gimmicky bright yellow sunbursts all over it that advertise “the NO-DIET weight loss solution.” And I found it at the cash wrap at Bed, Bath & Beyond, which is not the first place one might think to look for some common-sense advice of the nutritional nature. But what was that about not judging a book by its cover? So there you have it.
To be sure, the authors are not offering diet advice per se. (Which is a good thing, because neither one of them has any sort of nutrition or health credentials as far as I can tell.) They don’t discuss the fundamentals of a well-balanced diet and they don’t offer recommendations as to what an ideal diet would look like. Any nutrition information they offer is pretty general and backed up by seemingly reputable sources. A few small nits that I should mention: I always find these claims about cutting out X calories per day resulting in a 10lb weight loss per year (or whatever) to be a bit disingenuous. As in, “if you swap out your daily Haagen Dazs for Breyers, you’ll lose 15lbs per year!” These claims are always theoretical, and I don’t think that they usually bear out in reality for a whole variety of reasons. Also, their book seems to imply, (though if you read more carefully, I don’t think they mean this at all), that a diet full of packaged and processed foods isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as we pick the right packaged and processed foods.
But still, since packaged/processed foods are a convenient and necessary part of most of our lives–for better or for worse–we might as well know which ones to avoid. Which brings us to the real meat of the book: the authors start with the assumption that the recommended daily intake for most Americans is: 2,000 calories, 65g of fat (no more than 20g of which should be saturated), no more than 2,400mg of sodium, and minimal added sugar. Then, they go down the supermarket aisles and show you which products stack up the best and the worst by these standards. In so doing, they reveal certain truths about packaged and processed foods that even surprised me, which reminded me of an often-forgotten lesson that you should never make an assumption about a particular food choice based on its category, its brand or its health claims. Rather, you need to judge the individual food by what it says on the label.
Some examples from the book that reminded me of this important lesson:
- Donuts (as a category) tend to be viewed as one of the most nutritionally bunk foods you could eat–especially for breakfast. But in fact, a single packaged Otis Spunkmeyer banana nut muffin has 270 more calories, twice the fat and 3x more sugar than a single Krispy Cream Original Glazed donut. The former has 460 calories, 22g fat and 32g of sugar; the latter has 190 calories, 11g fat and 10g sugar. Not that either one makes a stellar choice, to be sure, but if you happen to be someone who just needs to have a sweet pastry for breakfast, then some not-stellar choices are still significantly better than others.
- I happen to like Stonyfield Farm Organic yogurt. I like the brand, the fact that they use organic milk, their friendly little cow logo, the fact that they recycle their used containers to the Preserve people to turn into plastic razors and toothbrushes. Which is why I’ve probably allowed their brand halo to distract me from the fact that they put a ton of added sugar into their yogurts! One 6oz container of their fat free Chocolate Underground yogurt contains 35g of sugar. Now to be fair, about 12g of that would be naturally-occurring milk sugars (lactose), which means that they added ~23g of sugar. (The fact that it’s organic sugar does not excuse it.) To put that into terms most people can understand: a sugar packet, which is also a teaspoon, contains about 4g of sugar. So this particular yogurt product contains the equivalent of about 6 sugar packets on top of the natural sugar contained in that tiny little yogurt container! And lest you think that this product is an anomaly because it’s chocolate, I looked at their other flavors too. They contain between 23g-26g of sugar per container, which means 11g-14g of added sugars. That’s still a solid 4 tsp on average. You’re better off just buying plain yogurt in bulk, adding your own fruit and, if need be, topping with 1 tsp of honey if you prefer some more sweetness.
- The previous example also illustrates the third point about not allowing health claims (“Fat free” and “organic,” for example) to distract you from evaluating an individual product’s healthfulness. The cereal aisle provides countless additional examples of this principle, making it one of the most treacherous places in the supermarket. Take General Mills’ Basic 4 cereal, which has at least 3 large health claims printed on the front of the box: “Whole Grain guaranteed (1)” and a “low fat (2)…part of your heart-healthy diet (3).” In fact, 1 cup of this cereal contains 200 calories, 13g of sugar (4+ tsps) and a mediocre 3g of fiber. Compare that to a boring old classic, that makes no claims on its package other than a lame “Great new look! Same great taste!”, Post Shredded Wheat. 1 cup of that contains 170 calories, 0g sugar and 6g of fiber. Even if you wanted to spruce it up by sprinkling a tsp of sugar on it, it would still be a healthier choice. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, there are plenty of other lower-calorie, lower-sugar and higher-fiber cereal choices that the book lists: Cheerios, Nature’s Path Heritage Heirloom Multigrain and Kashi Vive, to name a few. My own personal rule of thumb when it comes to cereal: I aim for no more than 10g of sugars per serving and at least 3g fiber–but ideally closer to 5g of fiber per serving. That should weed out a good 80% of cereals out there and help you focus on a smaller set of better choices.
Even if you don’t buy “junk food,” if you buy even a small amount of some packaged food basics– maybe some microwave popcorn, some cereal, some snacks for the kids, bread, cheese, yogurt, an occasional energy bar and some frozen entrees for emergencies– chances are you’ll find this book quite helpful in navigating the supermarket and ensuring that your choices aren’t undermining your health goals. (Of course, if you don’t want to buy it, just read it while waiting on line to check out at Bed, Bath & Beyond.) And if you find this edition helpful or entertaining, there are two others: a restaurant one and a kid’s food one. The restaurant one is absolutely horrifying and infuriating, but if you never eat out at chain restaurants like Hardee’s, Chili’s or TGI Friday’s, you’ll probably also be entertained and happily smug in your superior self.
If you grow all your own food, milk your own dairy cows, bake your own bread and churn your own butter, then you probably won’t learn that much. But you’ll probably be very entertained (or, possibly, horrified), at some of the foods that food marketers have the audacity to try to sell us.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.