A press release comes into my inbox. I, a food writer and a lover of eating, someone who realised a few years ago that life was too short to angst over every mouthful, receive a press release about an icecream brand.
Like so many before it, from New Zealand and overseas, this press release declared I could now eat icecream without feeling guilty, because this company has launched an icecream with only 280-360 calories per tub. Calorie counting, I chortled. How 80s. I didn't feel guilty eating icecream before. Should I have?
Unfortunately it seems all bad fashion comes back in vogue, and calorie counting, like those awful narrow sunglasses, is one of them.
The press release continued with its story: the founder was a lover of icecream but wanted a way to enjoy this treat without the guilt. A lawyer-turned-icecream aficionado, he was riddled with guilt and he wanted a solution. He found it. A leading dietitian and spokesperson exclaimed excitedly how this new, chemically filled, low-calorie icecream really is perfect to enjoy at any time of day, without feeling guilty or disappointed. She suggests we scoop it on a stack of pancakes for a breakfast.
Unfortunately it seems all bad fashion comes back in vogue, and calorie counting, like those awful narrow sunglasses, is one such thing.
This particular company, slinging low-fat icecream (containing everything from erythritol to corn syrup to skim milk to organic guar gum) managed to mention in nearly every paragraph how guilty you won't feel eating their shit-filled icecream, over the real stuff. I say "real" stuff because where theirs is chemical-filled, low-fat, high-sugar, and low-calorie, real stuff contains cream and milk.
Considering how guilty I wasn't feeling, I gave them a call. I asked them if all the guilt chat was just a tool used by marketers to get people to spend money. They declined to comment. It's become clear that's exactly what it is. Another tool used constantly to imply we should feel guilty simply eating to exist, in order to continue to feed (pun intended) the billion-dollar weight loss industry and our own self doubt.
The pervasive language of advertising is exactly that: pervasive. In the age of information in which we live, the bombardment of information about what we should and shouldn't eat has lead us to the point of a near-epidemic, where people fear food, live riddled with guilt, and dietitians are having to teach people how to feed themselves. Does the fact that we're told, through implication, repeatedly, that we should feel guilty consuming food, by an industry worth billions, begin to have an effect on our eating habits and behaviour?
"Absolutely," says registered New Zealand dietician Jess Maclennan, who holds a Masters of Dietetics. As a practising dietitian in Christchurch, she sees it all the time. "There are confusing messages like that everywhere you look," she tells me. "And you know what? Normal icecream is okay."
What Maclennan does with clients is try to remove the words "good" and "bad" and, in fact, remove morality from eating altogether. She uses an example of murder. It's generally accepted that committing murder makes you a bad person. "There's a moral judgment there," she explains. "But eating icecream? Not a chance! You're not a bad person for eating icecream."
But this is how people have begun to view themselves and everything they eat. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. That moral judgment applied to food absolutely leads to disordered eating and negative habits, according to Maclennan.
"If someone sees that icecream is deemed healthy, they're more inclined to smash the whole tub. They won't be listening to hunger cues and they won't stop when they've had enough." Which, she says, they probably would have, if they'd had the original product in the first place - if the fear was removed. Guilt shouldn't be anywhere near it if it's a normal treat food, part of a balanced diet.
It's not only icecream though. Potatoes, bread, "even fruit has become scary now", Maclennan says, and even carrots now allegedly have more sugar than other vegetables and thus have become a guilt food. Standard, basic foods have become scary for people, and society has done it. We discuss how weight loss behemoth Weight Watchers has rebranded to WW, with the tagline "Wellness that Works" and agree that while on the surface it seems great they're making changes away from a focus on weight, it's essentially the same thing wrapped in a different parcel.
It still has a focus on weighing less, still has people measuring their self worth on their size, with fear and guilt about consuming everyday foods - and it's still a business making millions. Maclennan is constantly trying to diffuse the confusion out there, and likes to remind her clients that food is fuel first and foremost and talks about food from a nutrient point of view, rather than a calorie one. "We need nutrients to keep us alive," she laments.
If only it were that simple.