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Diet Fads: Supermarket Sheep

Eighteen or twenty years ago, I was into high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diets, courtesy of the original Atkins Diet Revolution and, to an even greater extent, Stillman's Quick Weight Loss Diet (which I must admit I still prefer to Atkins but that's merely personal taste). At the time, every aisle was loaded with labels proclaiming Low Fat or Reduced Fat. I didn't care about fat and sought much different information. Unfortunately, low fat was "in" and I felt alone and abandoned.

With a certain sense of resentment, I tracked down the carbohydrate costs of a wide variety of food, keeping a sharp eye on ingredients, calorie levels, and nutritional values. Certain items were strangely emblazoned with banners announcing low fat: pasta sauce, potato chips, candy bars, and ice cream. I was puzzled: how could certain foods, full of fat to their very core, be low fat? How could all the fat be removed and there be anything left?

I became fascinated with certain labels. Have you ever, for example, read the labels on those flavored coffee creamers? Zero fat. Zero carbohydrates. Zero protein. Zero calories. How can anything we put in our mouths have zero calories? A negligible amount, maybe, but absolute zero? What is in that stuff? Or is it virtual food, existing only in our mind's eye as a kind of edible hologram?

Mercifully, the low fat craze died its natural death. Atkins and similar regimens took over and the low fat labels were reprinted (corporate recycling at its finest) to read Low Carb. Suddenly, everywhere you looked, there were foods recast as low carb - again with the pasta sauce, the potato chips, the candy bars, and the ice cream.

I was curious. Had the manufacturers taken out all those carbs and put the fat back in? Where did those carbs go? Are there vast dumpsites in the desert where unwanted carbs are buried - next to worn tires, plastic bags, and nuclear waste?

Once more, I wonder: what is left in those boxes, cans, and jars? Why am I paying $1.19 per ounce for something that really isn't anything?

Then I started to figure it out (sometimes I'm a little slow). The food hadn't really changed at all, just the packaging. Food labels are like those ubiquitous Internet sales letters. They trumpet headlines that catch our interest because they are in synch with our desires and goals. Is that accidental? Of course not. Highly paid copywriters choose their headlines with great care, buying into the national "obsession o' the day", floating on the coattails of the latest fad.

Many of us are so desperate to control our weight that we buy into the promises like the unaware followers we are: bleating sheep heading for a precipice with no thought of questioning our leaders or striking out in a different direction.

The unspoken secret is that the label doesn't matter. If we want to lose weight, we don't eat pasta sauce, potato chips, candy bars, or ice cream. Period. No matter what the package says. Deep in our psyche, we know what we can eat (very little) and what we can't (a whole bunch). Allowing ourselves to be misled is only a fashionably acceptable way to fool ourselves, and we know it. We buy into the hype because we want, so badly, to believe. We want to think that we are doing the right thing, that we're really trying, that our motivation is pure.

Our weaknesses are being exploited by the packagers and the super store con men. Our ambivalence, and the overwhelming need to avoid the very real discomfort of effective dieting, invests the misguidance of food labels with an illusion of truth.

Like our dimwitted ovine cousins, we, too, are eventually fleeced.

Virginia Bola is a licensed psychologist and an admitted diet fanatic. She specializes in therapeutic reframing and the effects of attitudes and motivation on individual goals. The author of The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a free ezine, The Worker's Edge, she recently completed a psychologically-based weight control book: Diet with an Attitude:A Weight Loss Workbook. She can be reached at


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