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Sneaky diet culture: How food labels can be misleading

Sneaky diet culture: How food labels can be misleading

This morning, I poured myself a bowl of cereal from a box labeled “gluten-free” and “no GMOs.” The milk in my cereal bowl was labeled “no antibiotics.” The yogurt I gave my daughter for breakfast was labeled “no artificial colors.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to find a box, carton or can of food in my kitchen that doesn’t have some type of “free from” label or other health claim.

Personally, I don’t buy because of labels. Like most Iowans, I base my food choices on price, taste and convenience

But lately, I’ve been looking at food labels in a different light after discovering the work of registered dietitian Christy Harrison. She’s the author of a new book, Anti Diet, and host of the popular Food Psych podcast.

It’s eye-opening to learn about what Harrison calls “diet culture” – the messages we see and hear every day urging us to strive toward society’s health ideal of a thin body.

As Harrison and her fellow Health at Every Size (HAES) dietitians stress, diet culture is sneaky. It can disguise itself as products marketed to help us “eat healthier” or “live better.” But make no mistake, diet culture isn’t about health. It’s about making money. It’s about feeding into our fear of fat to sell foods and products that promise to help us lose weight and transform into a thinner body that, in reality, isn’t achievable for almost all of us.  

Now that I’ve learned more about diet culture, I see it everywhere – on magazine covers, on displays at clothing stores, at the gym and in my grocery cart.

In addition, I see diet culture as food labels like gluten-free, no HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), no GMOs, vegan, plant-based, hormone free and no antibiotics.

Never mind that many of these labels are inaccurate (all foods contain hormones and all meat is antibiotic free), and they don’t tell us anything about the nutritional value of the food.

If you’re looking for foods that pack the most nutrition for your dollar, dietitians recommend reading the nutrition facts panel instead of food marketing labels. Foods that are high sources of nutrients will contain 10% to 20% of the Daily Value (DV) of vitamins, minerals or fiber.

For example, real milk is a good source of calcium (25% DV) and vitamin D (15% DV). Real beef is a good source of zinc (36% DV), iron (13% DV) and high quality protein (25 grams per 3-ounce serving).

Remember, it’s best to ignore all those “free from” labels that marketers use to get us to spend money.

Good nutrition shouldn’t be about deprivation. Healthy living should be about eating a variety of foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains (yes, carbs are OK!) and real meat and dairy.