Dietary Scare Tactics

If there’s one thing I really can’t abide, it’s fear mongering. For one thing, we have to deal with far too much of it on a daily basis. For another, it’s based entirely on the notion that rather than getting the full information about something, you’ll get partial information and then be so distracted by your gut emotional reaction that you’ll abandon the idea of getting the full story altogether, and end up doing something ill-advised, poorly researched, or just plain stupid. That’s what makes this particular time of year especially hard for me to deal with–the winter season is bad enough when it comes to wacky diet advice, and when you add in the holidays, things get out of control pretty quickly.

Take, for example, this infographic:


Personally, I love a good infographic. I like the way they condense information and present it in an aesthetically pleasing, concise format. But it really bothers me when, like this one, they take straight-forward information and distort it in order to make you think that you are going to get fat unless you spend hours upon hours on the treadmill and who on Earth wants to do that you might as well just give into the idea that you’re doomed to be disgusting and slothful for the rest of your life oh my god.

Now first of all, situations like the one in the infographic above are generally not representative of the way a person eats every single day, and to present that information as though it were is just disingenuous. Second, what’s with the completely arbitrary assortment of foodstuffs? What’s the point of showing the total number of calories in a Christmas dinner and a full meal from McDonald’s and a slice of pizza and a can of soda…all I can really guess is that the goal here is not to get people to think about these individual foods, but to get hung up on this weird total. Third, by promoting the idea that one has to burn off every calorie consumed, the information in this infographic implies that our bodies aren’t meant to handle any caloric intake whatsoever, that instead, we’re supposed to burn everything we consume.

What’s the advantage of presenting such misleading information? Well because if we all think rationally about these things, and approach food with a relatively healthy attitude (example: “It’s the holidays, I know I may be eating a bit more than I normally would, but this isn’t how I eat all the time, and things will balance themselves out once the holidays are over” or something), we’re probably not going to be inclined to buy ourselves a $1,000 (approximation, based on my idea of the current exchange rate and disinclination to use a calculator in order to make any real calculations) treadmill. And in the end, a lot of what goes on in the fitness/health industry is meant to make money and not necessarily improve people’s lives in any way.

Here’s a crazy idea: rather than resorting to scare tactics, maybe retailers and media outlets should try taking a straightforward, honest approach to selling their wares. It would be crazy, I know. But maybe if they tried appealing to people’s desire to feel good and take care of themselves, they would actually see their sales go up. I mean, I know I would rather buy a treadmill because it would help me take a step toward leading a healthy, fulfilling life, not because it might prevent me from a life of fat (and don’t even get me started when it comes to scare tactics and the word ‘fat’), guilt, and sloth. I’d imagine that there are many, many people out there who feel the same way.

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  1. Good post! I agree, this kind of stuff makes me mad too. It’s pointless and dishonest. But that’s the way the marketing world works. I try not to look at ads/commercials because I don’t appreciate the angle they present when trying to reach the consumer. And sadly, I don’t think retailers and the media will ever change – it would require a bit of evolving on their part and I don’t think they are capable of that.

  2. while i think this kind of information needs to be told more, i do agree that it was presented wrong. instead of saying “this would all equal 3,799 calories” they could have put the # of mins running next to each item. like, “mcdonalds meal = 1.5 hours of running” and then “grilled chicken salad = 20 mins of running” (or whatever the amounts are) to further educate people on their food decisions.

    1. I think you have a good point in saying that it would be more helpful to give equivalents for individual food items–it has potential to be a more approachable way for people to understand the nutritional value of what they’re eating.

      Part of the problem is that the way healthy eating is presented and taught needs to be overhauled! It’s not useful to think of things altogether in a 3,800 calorie meal, but it might be helpful for people to understand how the body is using or could use the 500 calories that come from a single meal.

  3. You hit upon something that is a particular sore spot with me lately and that’s the notion that we need to “burn off” EVERYTHING we consume. Hell, I tried to live by that for years and it didn’t do me any good. I got way too thin, I lost a lot of hair, I was sick, I couldn’t do things I wanted and enjoyed, hell…. I couldn’t have even mustered up the energy to enjoy them if I could do them. Scare tactics are so abundant in the media and it makes me mad.

    Another thing that needs to be bold in what you wrote:
    And in the end, a lot of what goes on in the fitness/health industry is meant to make money and not necessarily improve people’s lives in any way.
    These companies don’t care about you as an individual… they want to make a buck. If that means scaring you into buying their products, then they’ll try it. People that make their whole business/image on the idea they care for people’s well-being often have some of the shadiest contrary messages around.

    I’m starting to get worked up… I’ll end now!
    I love your posts Emilie!

    1. Thanks, Jill! I get so worked up about these things, too! I wish there were some way we could start a revolution and change the way “health” and “fitness” are presented.

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