The Distrust Diet: Can Suspicion, Anger And Disdain Help Us Lose Weight?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

America is in, to quote the title of a new book, “A Big Fat Crisis.”

The crisis in question is what the surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, this week called the defining public health challenge of our time. So we need more than ever to understand,”The Hidden Forces Behind The Obesity Epidemic — And How We Can End It,” to quote the subtitle of that new book.

Author Deborah Cohen, an MD and senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, makes two powerful points (among others):

• Given human nature — particularly all the ways we’re hard-wired to perceive and eat food — the current food environment (or “food swamp,” as she puts it) pushes most of us willy nilly into extra weight, and we cannot realistically expect most people to have the superhuman self-control needed to resist it.

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

• Given that obesity has become a major public health problem, it is time for the government to step in, as it has in past public health crises — including, most classically, bringing in better sewage systems in the 19th century to stem water-borne diseases like cholera. Government measures could range from restricting displays of junk food to rating restaurants on how healthy their menus are.

I leave it to others to debate those central messages; I asked Dr. Cohen instead to expand on a more minor point that particularly rang true for me. On page 184, she includes this little coping tip: “Look at the current food environment and purveyors of processed foods with suspicion.” She writes:

“If we start viewing the worst offenders in the food and beverage industries with disdain, their efforts will fail to persuade us to buy their products. We will have inoculated ourselves against companies that sell us junk foods and that advertise and market those foods relentlessly. The best thing about this approach is that we won’t have to use up any of our willpower or limited cognitive capacity to reject these unhealthy foods — we will say no automatically, as we do when faced with anything suspicious.”

Recent books and media coverage can certainly help fan our suspicion, particularly the rising criticism of “Big Food,” and marketers whose products have been clearly shown to be obesogenic — soda, candy, junk food in general. Personally, I’ve found my own food attitudes shifting as my distrust of food-makers has risen, as I’ve read more about how marketers develop “hyper-palatable” foods to hook us, and stores design their shelves to maximize impulse buying. (In fact, Dr. Cohen cites findings that supermarkets often gain more income from vendors who pay for the prominent placement of their foods than from selling the food itself.)

It’s reached the point that, if I find a truly indefensible bit of junk food in my pantry, I may declare it “non-food” — “They only want us to think that it’s food, but it has no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever!” — and throw it out. My tainted attitude vastly diminishes any appeal it may have. Eating it would make me a sucker.

We’re being tricked into spending our limited resources on food that will lead to chronic disease.

So Dr. Cohen’s prescription for suspicion made sense to me, and I asked her to expand on it further: Can we really use our own disdain and distrust to lose weight and improve our health?

Our conversation, edited:

Deborah Cohen: First, I want to say that I actually think that trying to have each person solve this problem on their own is doomed to failure, because the environment is so powerful and it affects us in ways that we can’t always recognize. Unless we can control the environment, we’re not going to be able to control ourselves very well. That’s for most people. Yet there will be some people who can take this advice and put it to good use to lose weight, but that’s not going to be everybody.

Point taken, and I must say, I found your emphasis on the power of these automatic responses to food, that most of us cannot control, very comforting, because it has long baffled me that so many of us — including me — can accomplish so many other things but not lose unwanted weight. So how can distrust help us?

The easiest things to give up are junk food items like candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips. Let’s start there, because those are generally very recognizable, and they’re placed in our faces everywhere we go. If we can look at those items and think, ‘Those are being made to trick me, to dupe me and to take my money’ it will be easier to resist them. If you think about a bag of potato chips, that might be less than half a potato in there, the ingredients might cost a few pennies, but they’re going to charge you a dollar or more. The ingredients are cheaper than the labor, packing and advertising that are used to sell them.

So if we think that junk food is ripping us off, maybe we’re going to be less likely to buy it. We’re being ripped off financially, we’re being tricked because this food will increase our risk for chronic disease, and they’re exploiting our human nature to want something quick, convenient and tasty. So be suspicious.

Also, think about sugar-sweetened beverages. I stopped drinking them years ago, and it’s not because I didn’t like them. I used to love root beer, for example, but I haven’t had it in years because I’m angry at the soda industry. Sugar-sweetened beverages are making a lot of people sick. Beverage companies are targeting their marketing at people who really can’t afford to buy them.

The sodas are being sold as fun, as high-status, to trick people who are of lower status into buying them. Many people who spend money on sodas could more profitably use that same money to buy nutritious food — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk — or even to go on a trip to a park for a day.

We can use the money in better ways, but we’re being tricked into spending our limited resources on food that will lead to chronic disease. That makes me angry.

How else would you use distrust — to the extent it can help individuals? Say, when you’re sitting in a restaurant?

Yes, that’s another good place, because most restaurants are serving too much food, too many calories, more than we can burn. The portion sizes are way too large, so maybe what we can do is share one meal with a dinner companion, just divide it up at the outset.

Right, and how about our attitude toward understanding the motivations of the restaurant?

Say you come into the restaurant and there’s a free basket of chips or bread in the middle of the table. You can think, ‘They’re putting that there so we’ll fill up and not notice how bad the food is — or how unbalanced or bad for us it is.’ So maybe we could immediately think: ‘They’re putting all these chips and bread and sort of garbage food in front of us and we should say, ‘You know what, they’re tricking us, they’re going to make us eat too much. We’re going to immediately tell them to take it off the table.’

Another thought about using suspicion in restaurants: People should realize that if restaurants are serving such large quantities of food — especially in all-you-can-eat places — the quality cannot be very good. A restaurant is probably serving low-grade foods or food that is not very fresh if they can afford to offer as much as you want.

What about when you walk into a supermarket? How can distrust be a good tool there? I really was amazed by that factoid that supermarkets bring in more money from food vendors for shelf placement than from selling the food itself.

Yes, that came from a book by Herb Sorensen called “Inside the Mind of the Shopper.” In the supermarket, it’s really amazing how things are being shifted right now. If you go to the fruit and vegetable section, there are going to be non-fruits and vegetables there. They might put a bottle of wine; they might put some chips to go with the guacamole. They’ll put other things that will condition you to make associations so that you’ll not just buy something healthy but something unhealthy along with it. So just trying to notice how items are being manipulated to increase your spending might help people resist. If you recognize that ‘It’s placed there because they want me to be impulsive,’ that might help you counter the effect.

For example, if you go to the yoghurt section, there are all these different flavors, or the soup, all these different styles. When there’s so much variety or they have a special, say 10 for $10, it actually encourages you to buy greater quantities, and then eat more, than you would have otherwise. Variety makes us buy more, as does the suggestion that you’re getting a bargain because you’re buying in bulk.

I also found it eye-opening when you wrote that items on display at the ends of the aisles sell at far higher rates.

Yes, there’s something about the arrangement of food, when it’s on special display or at the end of the aisle, that it gets more attention. I don’t know if it’s a column effect, that draws your eyeballs there, but there’s something irresistible about it. First of all, we have to pass them every time we go to other aisles. We can’t avoid them the way we can the products that are in the middle of aisle. But perhaps it’s the height of the end aisle display, and the way it juts out from the rest of the products that really captures our attention.

I’ve heard advice to stay on the outside walls of the supermarket, where the fresh rather than the processed food tends to be.

That might help a little bit, but that won’t solve the problem because now they’re putting junk food on the outside walls of the supermarket, too. And they put items that you might want very often, like milk, way in the back so you have to go around the whole store and pass everything else just to get what you want.

Going to a market with a list, and being very careful to stick to the list, can protect you from buying too much. And even better is if you can order online and have your food delivered or just pick it up instead of having to shop yourself. You’re not going to be exposed to all of those temptations.

What about ways that it actually helps to distrust yourself, to distrust your own brain, your own instincts? You write about these automatic unconscious responses to food, everything from eating more if we’re served in a bigger bowl to eating more when we’re distracted. What would you highlight?

For one thing, when we look at food, it can make us feel hungry. So if might help if we have a rule of thumb to leave a gap of three to five hours between any eating. We don’t need to eat constantly but yet if we see food or something that suggests it’s time to eat, we can still feel hungry even though there is plenty of food in our stomachs still being digested. Maybe if we check our watches more and pace out how often we’re eating, that could help some of us reduce the frequency and quantity of what we’re eating. It might help people on diets.

And portion size?

Yes, if you’re served too much, you eat too much. Some people, unfortunately, if they really want to control what they eat, will have to use measuring cups and kitchen scales to limit portions, because we are terrible judges of quantity just by eyeballing.

How else do our own brains conspire against us?

Our brains can perceive things that our conscious awareness cannot. Television is one of the triggers that make people feel hungry and want to eat something. We may not realize that it was an image on TV that made us want to eat something. If we’re watching TV and all of a sudden somehow feel hungry, we have to just discount that right away and instead of walking to the refrigerator maybe walk in the opposite direction and do some calisthenics. Just think: the TV is forcing us to be sedentary and even just being sedentary itself is a risk factor for chronic diseases.

Let’s end on possible public health solutions. How would you sum up your biggest recommendations?

The main thing is that it’s too much of a burden for individuals to fight this battle on their own. This is a public health problem — it needs a public health solution. Standards and regulations are the backbone of public health, and we need to develop and implement a series of standards and regulations that will make the food environment safer, so people will automatically get the food they need and not be undermined and influenced to consume food that leads to chronic diseases.

Part of why I think it’s too difficult to be suspicious all the time is that it will put us in an unhappy frame of mind. If we’re going to be asking people to do that, we’re asking them to make themselves miserable, angry and upset all the time. We have to eat three times a day. That’s a lot of negative vibe.

It is. And for many of us, our relationship with food is already so complex, so often a battle of “goods” and “bads.”

And it didn’t used to be like that. It’s only because our country has been turned into a food swamp, and there’s danger everywhere we go. And that’s a shame. That’s why these standards and regulations are necessary to protect people.

Readers, reactions? Are you already on the Distrust Diet? How do you see it? 

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  • Duncan

    I think we should harness our anger at being manipulated because when the model switched from “need based” consumerism to “want based” everything changed, and food services are not the only ones capitalizing on human frailties. Money is power and it seems that the most sensible thing we can do is to not give it to those who intend us harm .

  • Holly Pollinger

    I have read all the posts for this article and want to congratulate everyone for having a most intelligent and interesting sharing of views – without rancor or meanness.

  • Marcus Cher

    Hi I’ve just been reading Michael Pollan books: Cooked and In Defence of Food. Really quite relevant to the above article. I would highly recommend it to people interested in history of diet and nutrition. There are some really interesting ideas such as the French paradox.

    Personally, looking into this issue a lot I believe food consumption is environmental more so than we previously thought. If you hang out in places cafes or bars you will eat what you can get, which is economically placed to make you buy more beverages. The quality of the food suddenly isn’t as important as the company we share while drinking. Like wise with consumption at work, many of us consume food at lunch to fit in, or consume to take a break from a busy work schedule. It rarely is planned eating, rather just eating what is environmentally available.

    At home and in the car, on TV and radio we are constantly barraged by food messages that tell us we need to eat all the time to stay happy or to keep anger at bay, when the irony is that that being over weight is making us terribly sad. Whilst people claim it is the individuals responsibility it is a hard line to swallow now considering cigarette advertising ceased and lung cancer rate went down. I sincerely believe there will be a direct cause and effect with obesity, if you simply look at practices in marketing and advertising directed by the food industry.

    Also I find it some what a double standard that so much sport is cloaked in fast food advertising. Not just the sport it’s self, but the little leagues that children play in at half time. It is to suggest the idea that kids are fat because they don’t play physically enough, which is partially true. But it is that partial truth that exonerates the likes of big fast food companies responsibility to serve health food to minors. If you claim there should be no responsibility to serve children who’s brain hasn’t fully developed, healthy food, then essentially you are advocating in my opinion that most children will obese.

    When you train your brain to appreciate large quantities of fat it’s very hard to retrain it to stop wanting more of it. If you get in early enough you can transform a young persons brain to crave large quantities fatty take away food at the cost of eating a healthy home made meal. No amount of education or government persuasion will stop that craving. Once a child is hooked on fast food it is a tough cycle to break.

    In closing I find it particularly funny that even though as people we can only eat as much as the previous generation, a finite calorific intake, we burn less energy in our sedentary jobs, yet we have bigger fridges to keep more food, we have cup holders and snack compartments in our cars to make food accessible all the time. Why?

    Yours sincerely a reformed fat man.

  • battleshipman 2112

    I am afraid that I must disagree with the good doctor. Food manufacturers are doing what american business has always done…push what sells. And where do they learn what sells…from US. I’m all about distrusting “big business”, however, I’m afraid that I must extend that mistrust to what is possibly the biggest business of all,,,the U,S, Government, I simply believe that. as with most things. it’s up to US to determine what’s good for us. I, too, ate junk and fast food for years, without ever stopping to think about what it was I was putting in my mouth. It was only after I was diagnosed with a previously unknown congenital heart defect that I was forced to change how I looked at eating entirely. I believe that it is only at the precipice we truly change. American food manufacturers are the same way,,,they will only change when WE push them to the precipice. The info is out there, it’s WE who need to use it. I’m fine with the government being a reliable source of information, not doing what the good doctor accuses America;s food manufacturers of doing,,,forcing it down our throats.

  • Ammyth

    Last I checked, every grocery store has fresh produce, dairy, meat, nuts, and a host of other healthy food available for sale. Good information on what foods are best to eat and the best ways to eat them is out there, in books, on the internet, and in the minds of every adult who isn’t completely incapable of taking care of themselves. Why do we need government to tell us what to eat? The government DID tell us what to eat for decades. It was called the Food Pyramid, and it directly contributed to decades of terrible health in our country.

    Figure it out yourselves. The healthy food and good information are out there. This shit is not rocket science.

  • Earl Boaz

    Regulation of food and advertising would be a good thing – but not effective in the long run. Enterprise without morals/conscience/ethics concerned only for profit makes it so. It is institutionalized and praised in our country touted as a virtue. Any effort to hinder big food/government collusion will be coopted i.e. the “organic” or “natural” labels. That pretty much leaves salvation up to the individual and/or “radical” groups.

  • kfrancis333

    While I do support food reform in this country and absolutely agree that the obesity epidemic must be addressed, I do have some reservations about this approach. As someone recovering from anorexia, the descriptions of this mindset sound alarmingly like those adopted in the midst of an eating disorder. Looking at some foods with suspicion can rapidly lead into scrutiny of every bite. Personally, I would rather live as an unhealthy, obese individual than someone who agonizes over every meal and snack. We do need to talk to out children about eating well, but please let us not instill them with mistrust of their bodies’ abilities to process processed food. This approach may be helpful for some but for others it could lead down a dangerous path. So grab that occasional bag of chips and an apple on the side.

    • Mark

      The message wasn’t that we should agonize over every bite. It’s to distrust the purveyors of mass-produced “food,” and to question why we buy what we buy. As well, no one said that you shouldn’t trust the way your body handles food. You should mistrust your brain when you make a snap decision to buy that bag of chips that’s next to the guacamole.

      Just about everything talked about in this interview are things I taught myself to do years ago, and I agree with the approach. I automatically reject junk food without thinking about, and I have no guilt or anxiety over what I’m eating when I eat. To use your phrase again, I don’t agonize over every bite, because I know I’m eating good food. There can be no dangerous path when people stop and think about what they put into their bodies.

      • kfrancis333

        As I said, I am not arguing that some individuals would benefit from additional consideration of what they are eating. However, it is extremely presumptive to say, “There can be no dangerous path when people stop and think about what they put into their bodies.” I and many of my closest friends are living proof to the contrary.

        Should you also, “mistrust your brain,” when it is craving another piece of celery even though you have already had your allotted portion? I’ll reiterate: some may find the solution to their health by scrutinizing labels and manipulative minds, but for a significant portion of the population increased emphasis on food choices can be devastating.

  • srichey321

    The only thing that helps is to provide an example by just doing it. I lost almost 60 lbs about 3 years ago and have kept it off. Interestingly (after some casual conversations regarding “how I did it”), some of my long time friends and colleagues started doing the same thing by cutting out certain food groups, eating less and working out more.

  • Mary Cummings

    Yes, I have been on the Distrust Diet for many years. As a recovering fatty (16 years on the wagon in this, my third, go-round), I can attest that when I allow myself to freely graze at the trough of the “international food cartel,” I put on 40-50 pounds in a blink. Envisioning the pap produced by commercial entities not only as unwholesome and unhealthy but also as intentional fraud has truly helped me resist their poisonous fare. Requiring producers to label food products was a great step forward. Getting people to read and apply the information on the labels to their own nutritional needs is the next challenge. Equally important is teaching people to value the quality of the foods they choose.

  • lindam313

    I will admit I didn’t closely read everything, but I’ve felt this way for years. The food industry is basically out to trick us to buy stuff that isn’t good for us, that we don’t need and probably don’t really even want once we get it home. I think it is a sound diet attitude! Diet as in way of eating, not a way of restricting to lose weight – basically avoid as much processed food as humanly possible, don’t go out to eat very much and when you do pack up half of it to take home or give away, get inner city stores to stock nice fruit, not half rotten (as I’ve heard they do) and support people who want to eat well, don’t keep throwing unhealthy food in front of everyone’s paths!

  • Mike McCarthy

    Our poor children don’t stand a chance with the government, industrial food manufactures (Monsanto, ConAgra and the like), sellers (Kraft, McD’s and the like) and the FDA all striving to produce cheap cheap calories without regard to health or safety. Why is pizza considered a vegetable for purposes of determining if a school lunch is healthy? Because Congress was paid by Gordon’s Foods to say that it does. Why does Kraft put food dyes into virtually all the products it sells to kids? Because its market research shows that kids will beg their parents for it and eat more of it with the food dyes. Why does McD’s give away more free toys than Toys R Us sells in a year? Because kids will eat more fires and drink more soads it they get a free toy. Why is there a revolving door between the FDA and major producers of industrial food? Because they can get their lax food laws passed and continue to make giant profits. Why does the government subsidize corn production when much of the production goes to make cheap sodas and feed for the cattle, which makes the cattle sick, so we then have to pump the cattle full of antibiotics. None of it makes any sense. Our food system sucks.

    • SeanP

      You made sense until you said corn made cows sick and you then had to give the cows antibiotics. Antibiotics are given to animals to lessen the burden these animals face to infections by bacteria. Corn-fed beef sells at a premium actually (look at Kobe beef). Please take an effort to understand the science before spouting off about what you obviously don’t understand.

      • Mike McCarthy

        Sean, you obviously are not a farmer, otherwise you would not have said such ignorant things. Only recently, (the last 50 yrs), have cows been fed corn. Corn makes cow bigger and more quickly than grass. This is why industrial farms feed their cows corn. Cows are not designed to eat corn. Cows have a special digestive system that is specifically designed to eat grass and only grass. This are facts. Look them up. If you feed a cow corn he is far more likely to become ill than if the cow eats grass. Read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Polan and then you will have a much better idea about how we raise our cows. Never in the history of human civilization has any country treated the animals that they raise and consume, worse than our country does.

        • SeanP

          Yes corn fattens cows dramatically. Then there is the question of personal taste of beef which is grass fed vs corn fed. Cows may not have evolved to eat corn, but when given the chance they do so willingly. A responsible farmer doesn’t give all corn, as will cause bloat. The antibiotics serve both to stave off infection from the nasty feedlots, as well as infections introduced by the adjusted diet. The personal taste for beef is just that, a personal taste.

      • Marcus Cher

        Ok so David Blackmore makes some of the worlds best beef. It’s Australian Wagyu, I believe it gets served at the Oscars ceremony. It is not corn fed. Corn fed is a cheap substitute for grass fed beef, that is free to roam around and eat grass. It costs more money to do so because it means maintaing the land. The beast takes better on grass and when its free to do what cows do. Eat sleep and not a great deal more. I don’t eat a lot of beef these days but when I do, I make sure I know where it comes from and what the cow has eaten. Please produce some evidence of this claim “Corn-fed beef sells at a premium”. Is it the corn feeding or just the breed of cow?

        • SeanP

          Actually its the ‘organic’ grass fed beef which is selling at premium in the grocery store. Still the best cuts of corn raised beef go to the high end restaurants. Go eat there and see what I mean about premium pricing.

          • Marcus Cher

            Sorry Sean, I find this hard to believe. I worked down the road from commercial butcher that supplied the majority the top end restaurants in Melbourne, Australia. I went down once a week and had a chat to the owner, who let me use the dry ageing room to hang up some rib eye. I was really impressed by how well run a modern commertial butcher is. What I found was the MLA (aka australian beef industry) is the best regulated and organised in the world. Don’t take my word for it. Heston Blumenthal as well as Nathan Myhrvold of Modernist Cuisine have both published this in there cook books.

            Anyway I got shown around the back and how things were monitored. Everything that comes in gets documented, breed, age, fat content, blood type, feed type etc etc. Simmilar to a MSDS in engineering terms, What I noticed was all the prime rib was dry aged and all of it was grass fed. I believe your suggestion of “best cuts of corn raised beef, go to the high end restaurants” could potentially work in Korea and Japan both with have excellent beef Hanwoo and Waygu. But what you will find is that it isn’t corn in the conventional western sense. It is corn as part of a mash combined with other grains, grass and in some cases fermented alcohol.

          • SeanP

            Yes, I simplified my corn fed beef line. You can’t give a cow just corn, it will cause bloat. A responsible farmer will use the mash as you described. Argentina and Australia are known for their grass fed beef, but in America, corn is king. So when I referred to ‘high end’ restaurants I was referring to those in Boston, NYC, and especially Chicago.

      • Carla D’Anna

        Digesting corn is not natural for cows and they develope more bacterial infections due to that and other issues. Kobe beef having a high price does not prove your point.

  • Ken Leebow

    My book, Feed Your Head, had the working title of The Pissed Off Diet because I became pissed off with the American food system. Every time I travel down my Main Street and look at the junk-food purveyors, in my mind I say: “Poison, poison, poison …” Yes, I agree with Dr. Cohen … get pissed-off … it’s a great motivator.

  • Dan Roth

    I know lots of heroin and crack addicts who despise drug dealers, but that doesn’t stop the addicts from buying and using their drug of choice.

    • srichey321

      …and you just described the root of the problem right there.

      • Mark

        Agreed. I’m currently reading “Salt, Sugar, Fat” and I suggest others do, too, in order to see how the food industry engineers food to make people eat and buy more…become “addicted,” if you will. They are no better than the people who sell us tobacco products.

  • pauly2468

    It’s time to let the government do its job of protecting the public,rather than resent them for “intruding”.Promoting healthy foods is NOT an unwelcome inntrusion.It’s a very welcome development.We need more of it,not less.
    Also.too many pundits claim to be speaking for the “American people” when thst say they want less government.

    • Ammyth

      Maybe the government could come up with some sort of “Food Pyramid” in which they tell us what are the healthiest foods to eat, and in what proportions we should eat them? Maybe one that would lead to decades of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other diet-related illnesses? Yes, that’s the ticket. Let the government tell us what’s best.

    • DeeLio

      Socialism! Pizza is a veggie, if you don’t like it, then you don’t like America!

  • Harry Sutton

    Dr. Cohen makes a good argument – that obesity represents a public health crisis – but I doubt that same public has any appetite for more government regulation, especially if it comes with hints of condescension (“we’re protecting you from yourselves, because you’re too weak or gullible to do it on your own”).

    It seems to me that society continues to look outward to a solution to this problem: many, if not most, overweight people would prefer a ‘quick fix’ – lap-band surgery, a miracle drug, government intervention to make the bad people stop selling them bad food that tastes good – that requires less (ideally no) autonomy or long-term behavior modification.

    Ultimately, it’s a simple four-word formula that has worked since the dawn of man: eat less, move more.

  • Vandermeer

    Thank you for mentioning that the difficulty of losing weight for many people.

    Thank you for not making them the target of derision and anger. I have known too many members of my family and good friends who suffer greatly from being overweight in this society. And yes many are addicted to the sugar and carbs that processed food and restaurant food contain. Sorry to hear that Governor Deval passed up the opportunity to promote the taxation of sugared sodas and candy. Where to we begin to get out of the “food swamp?” With compassion and love and yes REGULATIONS and armed with knowledge of how dangerous this food is for us.