Chances are you have heard of the “Eat This, Not That” series of nutrition books. At this point there are at least 7 different books, not including updated versions, and you can frequently see segments on morning TV shows where the viewer is asked to guess which of two foods or meals is lower in fat or calories. Needless to say, the eat this, not that mentality is very popular right now, but is it really a good way to approach nutrition?
If you are not familiar with the eat this, not that books, they contain some basic nutrition information, but the vast majority of the content is about comparing a “bad” food choice with a better alternative. Admittedly, this can be beneficial for people with limited nutrition knowledge and poor eating habits, but these products do not teach much truly useful information.
In many ways they are glorified calorie counters that provide additional facts or trivia about a sporadic assortment of foods. The information is not necessarily bad, but there are some definite problems with this approach to nutrition. My biggest complaint about the eat this, not that mentality is it less about educating people and more about dumbing down nutrition.
I am a big fan of products that simplify nutritional concepts into information that is easier to understand, but the eat this, not that philosophy is more about providing comparisons than providing information. There is a big difference between simplifying nutritional concepts and dumbing it down to the point where the information becomes virtually unusable, as is done with this approach to nutrition.
However, I realize many people are not interested in learning about nutrition, so they probably don’t care if the subject matter is dumbed down. In any case, the eat this, not that approach is popular, because it can help people cut a significant number of calories from their daily total just by swapping one of the listed bad foods with the corresponding good food.
In other words, you can cut calories without changing your lifestyle, nutrition habits, or even the places you eat, assuming the foods you eat are profiled in one of the books. Of course, it is always an improvement to switch an unhealthy food for one that is less unhealthy or ideally replace it with a healthy food, but there is a there is a major flaw with this approach in that it does not teach people what they need to make smart choices on their own.
If you will bear with me for a math analogy, this is like being told that 2 + 2 = 4 or 8 + 7 = 15, but not actually learning how to add. As a result, the information does not transfer well in new or different situations.
In terms of nutrition, you are told that one food is better than other, but all you really learn is that one food has more calories or more fat than another food. In real life situations, you are rarely presented with only two food options and asked to pick the better choice.
More often than not, you are presented with many options and if they are not covered in the books, then how do you decide what choice you should make? If you want to be successful with your nutrition, you need to be able to determine what is healthy and unhealthy about any product, regardless if it is in an eat this, not that book or not.
This brings me to another problem I have with the eat this, not that mentality, which is it portrays one food as being bad and the other one as being good. In many of the examples in the books, both foods are far from being healthy, but one just has fewer calories or less fat.
It would be much better if healthy alternatives were suggested, but the nutritional value of food does not seem to be anywhere near as important as simply how many calories are in it. This is another example of how nutrition is dumbed down to the point where critical elements, such as nutritional value and overall health, are almost completely ignored.
You could create a nutritional program made up of only the “eat this” foods, which are supposed to be the better foods, and still end up eating a lot of unhealthy foods that will do little to help you lose fat. Calories and fat are important, but they are certainly not the only factors that determine if a food is good for you. Things like vitamin, mineral, and fiber content, as well as the quality of the fat, carbs, and protein are all important and they are not things you will know just by looking at which food has more total calories or fat.
Another important thing to note is all the food comparisons are based on specific serving sizes and the comparison assumes that you will eat the entire serving for your meal. In many cases, the listed serving size is more than most people would eat at one time. If the items being compared are not the same relative serving size, then the comparison doesn’t really matter anyway.
For example, if the “eat this” food has 600 calories and the “not that” food has 1200 calories, it makes sense that you should eat the 600 calorie food, if everything else is equal. However, what happens if the 1200 calorie food is something that would serve as 3 meals and 600 calorie meal is something you would eat all at one time? In that case you would actually consume more calories by eating the lower calorie food.
This basically sums up the problem with the eat this, not that mentality, which is there is no perspective and everything is essentially a random comparison that may not even be a reasonable one.
While the information may be helpful for letting you know how many calories are in some of the foods you eat, particularly if you eat out a lot, it is not something you should use to plan your daily meals. If you really want to be successful with nutrition, it is much better to look at the positive and negative aspects of each food and try to eat a variety of foods with high overall nutritional values.
In addition, you don’t have to completely eliminate any food from your nutritional program. If you usually eat healthy foods, you can occasionally have something unhealthy without much of a negative effect. If there is a food you really enjoy, but it has 1500 calories, that doesn’t mean you should never eat it, it just means you should have a smaller serving and not eat it frequently.
The idea of swapping out one food for another one can be useful in very specific situations, but there are just too many things that are ignored by this approach to eating. Using basic nutritional strategies, such as controlling portion sizes, is much more effective for losing weight and fat than making these simple product swaps.
Learning about nutrition and being able to decide for yourself which foods you should eat is really your best bet if you want to achieve long-term health and nutrition success.
14 years of experience and education in health and fitness