I did pick up a copy. And I’m confused.
Written by David Zinczenko, the editor-in-chief of “Men’s Health” magazine, "Eat This, Not That” is highly accessible and fun to read. The premise is simple: You don't have to change your lifestyle to lose weight. Don’t eat less. Keep eating out. Fast food is OK. Just make some simple food swaps and you'll shed pounds, be healthier, feel better, and ultimately be more successful.
Zinczenko presents thousands of simple “swaps” that you can make, most of them at popular chain restaurants. About 125 of these swaps are presented on two-page spreads, with a photo of the “healthy” alternative (Eat This!) on the left, and a photo of the “unhealthy” alternative (Not That!) on the right. These swaps, he says, can save you “10, 20, 30 pounds — or more!”
Zinczenko makes a lot of promises: The book will help you “strip away belly fat, build lean, firm muscle, and look and feel fitter, healthier, and happier, than you have in years.” Not only will you reshape your body and enjoy greater physical well-being, says he, you will also gain the respect of your coworkers and bosses, potentially earning 20% or more than you currently do.
Which is all good. I’m all for Americans getting healthier. I would love to boost my income by a fifth. And I don’t doubt for a moment that there are better and worse alternatives at Taco Bell, Burger King, and Dunkin’ Donuts, some of them surprising. For example, one spread notes that that a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder without cheese (Eat This!) has 410 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 730 milligrams of sodium, versus a McDonald’s Premium Grilled Chicken Club (Not That!) which has 570 calories, 21 grams of fat, and 1,720 mg of sodium.
But. Wait. What are we doing in the drive-thru window in the first place? I thought we wanted tight abs. I thought we wanted leaner muscles. Does it really matter what we’re ordering as long as we’re sitting in our cars, placing a food order into a clown?
In a way, it definitely does. After all, it’s good to know that if I’m ever at an Outback Steakhouse, I should avoid the Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch Dressing, unless I am prepared to ingest a whopping 2,900 calories and 182 grams of fat. (Holy Gut-Buster, Batman!)
But let’s get back to that McDonald’s example. To actually lose 20 pounds simply by switching from a Premium Grilled Chicken Club to a Quarter-Pounder without cheese (a difference of 160 calories, which drops to 120 calories if you hold the mayo on the chicken club), I’d need to be eating at McDonald’s 37 times a month. Thirty-seven times a month. To reach the 30-pound goal, we're talking 55 times a month.
Dude, if you’re eating at McDonald’s more than 30 times a month, I’m willing to venture your food challenges are bigger than which sandwich you order.
Yes. I know that many, many people genuinely can't afford healthful foods. And I know also that many people live in neighborhoods that are "food deserts," where fast food is the only foodlike substance available. But my hunch — and it's just a hunch — is that those folks aren't the target audience for the book. You know, because people who can't afford good food don't tend to drop $19.95 on books. And in my experience, food deserts also tend to be bookstore deserts.
I'm pretty sure that the target audience is ... well ... the rest of us.
And it's true: occasionally we do wander in to fast-food establishments and chain restaurants. Say, on road trips, or when the kids are cranky and starving. But if it really is “from time to time” — if we’re really limiting it to a once-in-a-while experience — do we really need a book to help guide our choices while we’re there?
The thing is, Zinczenko’s not just devilishly handsome and wildly successful. He's also smart. He knows all about real food. At the start of the book, he recommends that we eat spinach and yogurt and carrots and blueberries and black beans every single day. He’s deeply (and correctly) concerned that America’s teens have “crossed under the golden arches to a likely fate of lifetime obesity.” In his previous book, “The Abs Diet: The Six-Week Plan to Flatten Your Stomach and Keep You Lean,” Zinczenko warned that trans fats and high fructose corn syrup are two of the worst things one can ingest.
And yet the majority of these pages are dedicated to helping people make smart choices by purchasing foodlike substances from companies who fill their products with those very things.
So, yes. I’m confused. There are other things that confuse me, too. Like, how a packet of Skittles, or a Milky Way Bar, or Tyson Buffalo Chicken Wyngs, or a factory-made Rice Krispie Treat, could ever deserve to wind up on an “Eat This!” page. Is there room for those products in a healthful diet? Maybe — although I personally wouldn’t go near those “Wyngs” with a 10-foot cattle prod. But how much room is there, exactly? Enough that we need a whole book steering us toward them?
In many ways, "Eat This! Not That!" is a successful package. It’s got great graphics, lots of stats and tips, excellent menu decoders. Zinczenko rightfully takes chains to task for their unwillingness to divulge their foods' nutritional profile, and he is plenty funny at times. But in the end, any book that implies I can achieve tight abs and better health by eating meals prepared by Burger King, Chili’s, KFC, Popeyes, or Pizza Hut, probably isn’t the book for me.
It's apparently the book for 2 million others. That’s how many folks are carrying it to the drive-thru. And I genuinely hope it works for them.
But me? I'm not buying it.