The “Low-Fat” Myth and Why You’re Being Marketed To

The “Low-Fat” Myth and Why You’re Being Marketed To

Don’t judge me, but when I’m not writing this blog, or doing a PhD, I work in marketing.

I know, I know – I’m pretty sure that means I’ll be a slug or something in the next life, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. This booty doesn’t pay for itself, you know.

Anyway, having spent a few years now learning my trade, I’m amazed – shocked, even – at how easily certain examples of marketing have had me fall hook, line and sinker for them over the course of my life. Specifically, I’m referring to diet foods. Healthy, healthy diet foods.

I can’t even tell you how many times, when I first started trying to shift the pounds, that I’d go nuts in the supermarket buying the low-fat version of everything. A healthy shopping basket, to me, would include some cereal bars, low-fat yogurt, skimmed milk, low-fat margarine, diet cokes and a whole range of other foods that were marketed to me as being super-conducive to weight loss.

There’s a sort of warm, fuzzy glow that seems to come give you a big ol’ hug when you’re at the checkout, buying a basket full of products labelled ‘low fat’ or ‘diet.’ It taps into that part of you that still wants to enjoy your favourite foods and live a healthy lifestyle… To have your cake and eat it, if you will. I always found that it justified my eating to the person on the checkout – because let’s face it, when you’re lacking in confidence and seeking comfort in food, everyone seems like a judge. “Yeah, I’m fat, but I’m doing something about it. So there.”

Most of the time, I’d manage to resist the temptation to blow a raspberry at that point. Most of the time.

The thing is, when you’re an emotional eater, it’s not just at the point of eating that food becomes emotionally charged. Wandering around the supermarket seems like either agony or ecstasy, depending on whether you’re ‘on a diet’ or not. Picking items off the shelf, putting them in the basket, putting them away (or chowing down before they reach the cupboard), knowing they’re there… All of these things have different feelings associated with them. And it’s these feelings that the diet industry tries to tap into.

The trouble is, this “halo effect” can actually lead you to eat more. If you think that you’re eating something that’s more nutritious, and that you don’t need to feel guilty about, the tendency is to eat more of it. That doesn’t just apply to processed foods – it’s organic foods too. However, when you overeat fruit and veggies – within reason – chances are you won’t gain anywhere near as much weight as if you munch your way through a whole bag of, say, Snack-a-Jacks. Or some other kind of diet food.

But why? How can diet food make you fat?

Essentially, it comes down to the kind of things these foods are composed of to make them resemble the “bad” foods they’re trying to replicate – especially when they’re of the sweet variety (which is totally my Achilles heel. In a world without cake, I would never, ever have struggled with my weight. G’damn that cake.)

As observed in the journal Nature:

People don’t derive as much pleasure from most low-fat, low-sodium or low-calorie foods as they do from more indulgent chocolate mousses and French fries. “Fat has a taste and a smell, it can change an item’s taste and smell, it has a texture and it changes texture. It’s a really tricky little thing,” says Jeannine Delwiche, who leads research into reducing salt, sugar and fat at multinational PepsiCo based in Purchase, New York,. “So when you start to talk about changing fat in a food, you’re going to be changing all of those things.” Which means, she says, it’s very difficult to create a product that gets it all right.

This means that there’s a strong chance that if you’re ditching ‘fat,’ you’re gaining additives to make up the taste and texture deficit that you lose when fat’s taken away – and often, these can actually end up making the situation a whole lot worse.

Cereal bars are one good example of the nutritional wolf in sheep’s clothing. They’re marketed as wholesome, healthy alternatives to a choccy bar – but actually, they can actually be just as bad for you as the chocolate you’re actually craving. For instance – check out the number of names for sugar that the consumer mag Which? found in the cereal bars they tested:

Glucose syrup, honey, golden syrup, raw cane syrup, inverted sugar syrup, molasses, glucose-fructose syrup, barley malt syrup, dried glucose syrup, partially inverted sugar syrup, fructose, lactose, prebiotic oligofructose syrup, grape juice concentrate, oligofructose syrup, dextrose and sugar.

It’s like the Wonka factory, but less fun. Snozzberry, anyone?

The problem is, this is where you get tripped up. You’re doing all the right things, checking your labels, making sure that there isn’t too much fat in there, and then finding yourself eating sugar by another name. If you’re at all inclined towards addictive or compulsive eating, or you’ve got an emotional dependence upon that sugary hit, eating cereal bars aren’t going to help you to move away from that. It’s bad times, my friends – unless, of course, you’re the marketer behind it. Then, you’ve successfully created a veritable triumph of smoke and mirrors.

I can only wish I was that good at my job.

And artificial sweeteners aren’t much better, either – from the Harvard Health blog:

 “Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Dr. Ludwig. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.

In other words, use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value.

Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight. Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda.

In short, getting a sweet ‘hit’ from one of these very potent, very powerful additives will make you more inclined to crave sweetness than sugar itself. It’s a lot like drug addiction – you’ll find yourself ever increasing the dose in an attempt to get the same rush. The natural sugars (which are combined with fibre, vitamins, and other natural goodness) you’ll find in, say, an apple, won’t give you the boost in energy that they’re supposed to if what you’re craving is a concentrated frying-pan-to-the-face sensory overload.

Not only that, but when you have something with that kind of concentrated sweetness, your brain can receive a chemical trigger that it’s consumed something sweet. So, it starts to secrete more insulin – ’cause it’s smart – in preparation for the anticipated rise in blood sugar levels… Which never comes.  When the blood sugar doesn’t rise your body needs something for that extra insulin, so it sends signals to the brain telling you that you’re hungry – causing you to eat more, as well as contributing to the likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes and all sorts of other health issues.

Now, I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks, while I’ve been preparing for, having, and recovering from my knee surgery, I haven’t given much thought to what I’ve been eating. I’ve not gone completely mad, but I’ve also not said no to artificial, processed foods when they pass me by. And I’ve been completely amazed by how difficult it is to have ‘just one’ of these things. They’re a very different type of pleasure from, say, a nice juicy apple – and one that isn’t really as satisfying. You’re left with a sort of yearning, a sort of “well, one more won’t hurt” that can – as I remember all too well – lead to a full-on binge until there’s an empty bag, just to get rid of them (and, depressingly, the evidence that they were ever there).

That sort of sweetness, in other words, can make a girl go crazy. And I talk as someone who – as I’ve mentioned previously – has had to quit both smoking, and codeine. I’m pretty familiar with the feelings attached to addiction. Just as the ‘halo effect’ of the super-processed diet foods is targeted at you on one front, the idea – especially for us girls – that it’s okay to ‘give in to temptation,’ to ‘indulge’ in something ‘irresistible’ and that it’s okay for certain products to make you compulsively eat… That’s good marketing too.

Marketing which, combined with tastes that are specifically designed to make you keep going back for more, is… Well, again, it’s pretty genius.

I’m only talking from personal experience, obviously – but I’m more convinced than ever that avoiding processed foods, be they diet or otherwise, whenever you can, is a necessary step in losing weight and keeping it off. Fruit and veggies – real foods – don’t need expensive marketing campaigns, or shiny colourful wrappers, or ingredients lists in tiny writing, seventeen lines long.

They just are what they are – and what they are is pretty great. Once you’ve gotten used to the cleaner, tastier, and all-round better feeling that comes from eating real, nutritious foods, you’ll realise that actually, you don’t need soda, or sweets, or any of that stuff to be happy. You’ll just be happy – pure and simple.

5 thoughts on “The “Low-Fat” Myth and Why You’re Being Marketed To”

  • Great article and very true. Healthy weight loss and then maintaining it is a lot about beating the sugar addiction, and avoiding low-fat products is an absolute must for a whole host of reasons. For example, fat is extremely important in helping us feel full – so if we’re not eating enough fat we can often feel hungry meaning that we end up eating more – low fat foods are often counter-productive. And as you say are often full of additives and sugar.

    I think it’s important to help people realise that diet drinks with artificial sweeteners like aspartame are only making things worse, making weight loss difficult – there is now more and more research supporting this. I know what it’s like to break an addiction to sugary drinks but it can be done!

    I agree that ultimately it’s about eating a diet rich in whole foods like fruits and vegetables – and many people at first may find this doesn’t ‘taste’ as good, but in time as they beat the addiction they will find that they could never go back.

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