De­laney Mes says it’s time we stop guilt-edged mar­ket­ing

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Apress 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.

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 bil­lion­dol­lar 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 led 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 di­eti­tian 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.

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