The Politics of Consumption

Colleen over at The Pretty Pear has asked some thoughtful questions about the products and food we purchase and how they may affect the fat acceptance movement:

If one is anti-diet, is it wrong (for the lack of a better word, because wrongness is pretty subjective) for that person to eat foods that are diet foods? I would say “diet foods” but I mean actual diet foods, like the cereals and the microwavable meals which shall not be named because Google will be all over it.

Here’s the thing – I don’t diet but there are some diet foods that I buy because they’re convenient and I actually enjoy them. There are a few of those microwavable meals that are pretty damn tasty and the special (ahem!) cereal has the space age dried fruit that I happen to like. But by purchasing these foods, am I just giving money to, and in turn supporting, the companies that are trying to get money from people who diet, which I disagree with?

That seems pretty cut and dry, of course I am! But how far does that go? What if something is labeled “low fat” but isn’t specifically a diet food? If they took the time to label it as low fat, are they trying to imply that it will help you lose weight? Am I doing a disservice to the Fat Acceptance movement by eating foods labeled as low fat?

My first reaction was to say ‘if it’s what you like, eat it’.

But, yes, there is the bigger picture.


Like Colleen, I don’t want to support the diet industry in any way. And I choose not to sign up with the latest diet company, buy diet books or take diet drugs. But I do, as I confessed in the Shapely Prose comments the other day, drink Diet Coke. So is that hypocrisy?

Truthfully, I have to answer yes.

At the same time, though, I acknowledge that we live in a capitalistic and consumer-driven culture. It is difficult, if not impossible, to live entirely inline with my values; limit plastic bags, limit petro-chemical consumption including packaging, no sweatshop produced products, buy ethically and organically produced Australian produce, no genetically modified foods, buy as few processed foods as possible. If I adhered to all of those restrictions all the time, I wouldn’t be buying much. Catch 22.

We do try to avoid purchasing packaged foods; but we do do it. We do try and limit plastic bags, but I am always forgetting to take my green bags to the supermarket. We used to not have a car, but we have one now due to John’s illness, and that needs to be filled with petrol. Just about every product we buy is in plastic or in some other petro-chemical container. If there are no organic, Australian grown beans, well, I will most likely get the chemically sprayed, probably imported ones. Do I really know that every piece of clothing I buy is non-sweatshop? Are the edamame I just ate at the Japanese restaurant gen-mod free? Who knows. I make dodgy purchases all the time, as do most other people.

Unless you make extreme adjustments in the way you live (dropping out of mainstream culture to live an ecologically sound, carbon and petro-chemical footprint free, self-sustaining life), it is nearly impossible in our culture today to avoid purchasing ethically ‘gray’ products.

And similarly, I think it’s the same with diet products.

Let’s start with the ideal of not buying diet foods. Well and good. No Lean Cuisine. No Diet Coke. DONE.

Or is it? As Colleen asks, should we then avoid any product marked ‘low cal’ or ‘low fat’ or that hints oh, so delicately that it will help us lose weight? Hell, that’s 90% of the foods on the shelf these days. Pretty much everything except chocolate and chips. And fruit, veg and meat should be safe from diet crapola, right?

Maybe, though we go even further and avoid buying any product from companies who manufacture diet foods or low-cal foods. Or from companies with owned by or with connections to diet companies or pharmaceutical companies?

And if we do that, perhaps we even avoid supermarkets who stock diet products? But where does that leave us to purchase our food from at all? Maybe a few local co-ops?

I’m taking the hypothetical to the extreme, but I think you can see my point. We live in a culture saturated at every level with DIET, DIET, DIET. The weightloss market is so lucrative, just about every company on the face of the earth has dipped a toe in to it or even just dived straight in.

Call my conclusions self-serving if you will, but I really can’t see how it is possible to avoid all purchases that support the diet industry in one way or another.

Any suggestions?

10 Responses to “The Politics of Consumption”


  1. 1 jaed Wednesday, 16 January 2008 at 10:07 pm

    If I adhered to all of those restrictions all the time

    The word “restrictions” caught my eye here, along with the fact that the people I know with a laundry list of criteria for what’s fit for them to purchase also tend to be on weight-loss diets (and to moralize the diet).

    Could this be (or be in danger of becoming) a form of orthorexia? Complete with vague feelings of guilt when it’s not possible to stick with all the restrictions all the time? The emotional tone does strike me as similar.

  2. 2 Tari Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 1:36 am

    My approach is to try to be as educated as I can be about the products I buy and where they come from and what their overall impact is; to make the best, most reasonable choice I can within my means and abilities; to take action where I can to push for better options; and to try not to feel guilty when I do compromise my values.

    Personally, I’ve been boycotting Subway and Kellogg’s for years because of their horriffic advertising. I’ve also been moving more towards local/organic foods, so I’ve cut way back on processed, packaged foods, which reduces the overall possibility of buying diet-ish food, since most of that is way processed stuff. All that being said, sometimes I get Lean Cuisine’s Garlic Chicken pizza, because daaaaayam is it tasty. So, you know, I try, and I’m not perfect, and I feel like that’s okay.

  3. 3 Telle Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 3:23 am

    Hmmm.. I haven’t thought of this before. I drink diet pop because my husband is diabetic and can no longer drink the regular stuff.. and I’ve gotten so used to the taste from drinking it at home that I get it when I’m out now too just because it’s what I’m used to.

    But then from a Health at Every Size approach.. could possible choosing the “diet”, “light”, or “low-fat” option of items be healthier at times? Hmmm.. I definitely have some things to ponder now (as I sit here munching on my Aldi “Fit and Active” dried apricots labeled as “FAT FREE”, “CHOLESTEROL FREE” and “SOURCE OF FIBER”).

  4. 4 Arwen Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 4:51 am

    Oh, god. The idea of giving up diet coke… *shudder*.

    I don’t like pop with sugar in it. So diet coke, which I’m sure will be the cause of my death, isn’t about the low calorie content so much as my enjoyment.

    But even if it WAS about low calorie content, I’m not sure I’d immediately dismiss that. I can be fat and want low calorie/low sugar drinks. I get more bladder infections with sugary drinks, for example.

    I wouldn’t, myself, buy any slimfast or WW products in order not to support those companies — but I see nothing particularly anti-fat in low fat/low sugar/low cal foods. HAES may mean eating low fat for gallstones, or low sugar for diabetes: some of my favorite large relatives have to make those choices for health. For me, some Lean Cuisines are a perfect small convenience meal because that’s how much food I sometimes need and I *like* them. I don’t like the other ones that have fewer (or no) fresh veggies and things. I suppose that my “diet” is pretty “lean”, even if my butt is not-so-lean.

    I’m not against people making food choices that respect their individual dietary needs, wants, or preferences. It’s not going to cause weight loss. Other than Slim Fast/Weight Watchers and the like, I’m not sure anyone really expects them to, do they? Even with “diet” or “lean” in the title. (Lean Cuisine, I must admit, I always thought of as “this meal is low fat”, not “you will be low in fat if you eat these meals”.)

  5. 5 kira Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 6:00 am

    I agree completely. I’ve always been an environmental and social justice activist, and back in undergrad my friends and I would go around and around over how to live our beliefs. We’d call for boycotting company X because of their sweatshops, company Y because of their maquilladora factories, company Z because they used DDT or clear-cut forest in the Amazon. Pretty soon, we realized that by the time we eliminated every company that did something to violate our beliefs, there were only a handful left from which we could get what we needed.

    So, like you, I realized that I was just going to have to do the best that I could, and avoid the most egregious offenders and making better choices whenever possible. For me, this seems to be the best approach towards this problem as well (which honestly, I hadn’t thought of before – thanks for bringing it up!). For example, while it makes sense to me to avoid products sold by companies that actively promote dieting and sell primarily diet-related products – Weight Watchers, for example. However, some “diet” products (e.g., Diet Coke, your favorite cereal) are produced by companies with a vast array of products, only a few of which are diet-oriented. Therefore, to me, they don’t seem quite as invested in promoting dieting. Make sense?

    The other complicating factor I see here is the fact that we’re all just learning (well, some of us – like me – more recently than others) to eat what we *want*, rather than what we are told we *should*. I worry that it would be too easy here to fall back into that trap, just switching over a different moral standard for our definition of *should*. I started drinking diet coke, even though I didn’t like it at first, because I felt like I *should* for dietary reasons, but now I honestly don’t like regular coke – it tastes sickeningly sweet to me. Am I to now force myself to drink something I don’t like, just because I *should* for political reasons?

  6. 6 littlem Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 6:36 am

    “And fruit, veg and meat should be safe from diet crapola, right?”

    I try to cleave to this ’cause it’s also real food with the least amount of chemical preservatives, pesticides (try to get rid of the rest with Veggie Wash), additives, et al.

    Of course, it does mean I don’t buy many shoes or electronics. So I guess that makes me a Bad Consumer. (Shhhhh. Don’t tell the FTC.)

  7. 7 twilightriver Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 7:47 am

    The more people shop at co-ops, the more options those shops will be able to offer people. The more consumers demand ethical products, the more they will become available.

    I know how hard it is because I don’t have a choice. I live in the states and have allergies to perfume, nickle, polyester, and a digestive intolerance to any form of corn. My only options for allergen-free products are the local country store, which started out as a farmer’s market and got so popular they bought a building and made it a store, and shopping online.

    Since I have to shop online anyway, it was easy enough to Google “sweatshop free” and buy things that are made by people who have unions and get a fair wage. My socks are $15/pair, but they are worth every penny. After 3 years, the only reason I need to buy more is because someone I knew stole most of my socks because they were so soft, warm, durable, and comfortable.

    I fully understand that there are many valid reasons that people take the more convenient route. Even I try to sometimes because I get fed up with having to go out of my way for a loaf of corn-free bread. However, I like to encourage everybody that it gets much easier as you get used to shopping this way. The more people who do it, the easier it gets for everybody who does it.

    My little country store has more than doubled the variety of products it’s able to offer because people here are sick of the big box stores moving in and driving locally owned businesses out. People fighting for our community with their money have made it so much easier for me to find the allergen-free products I need locally.

    You may be helping more people than you’ll ever realize.

  8. 8 Lynne Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 8:30 am

    I think the best we can do is do the best we can. Yes, we can vote with our dollars, but it’s become increasingly difficult to maintain this philosophy, particularly when you start drilling down into parent companies. So, yes, avoiding packaged food as much as possible is a great start. I usually make a pot of something on the weekend and that provides my convenience meals. But, let’s face it, I’m single and childless, and I like to cook. I can devote that kind of time to my food, and enjoy doing it. On the other hand, I too drink Diet Coke, I subscribe to Cooking Light, and I buy the “100 calorie” packs of crackers and such. I can certainly sit here and rationalize these purchases (I have bad sugar crashes, so don’t like to drink regular soda; I like the recipes out of the magazine; the packs are easy to grab and go), but at the end of the day, yes, I’m supporting diet saturation with these purchases. We’re already so saturated though, that I really don’t think there’s much we can do short of growing our own food (and I live in an apartment – there’s no way!). Even co-ops aren’t immune. So, pick your battles, I guess.

  9. 9 Fatadelic Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 8:51 am

    Jaed:

    Could this be (or be in danger of becoming) a form of orthorexia? Complete with vague feelings of guilt when it’s not possible to stick with all the restrictions all the time? The emotional tone does strike me as similar.

    Jaed, I take your point. Regarding myself, however, Colleen’s post got my thinking, that’s all – and as I state in my post, I followed those thoughts to the extreme as a hypothetical. The point was that in this world, trying to control one’s purchases in that extreme way is nearly impossible. I don’t live in a perpetual haze of guilt over what I buy. But I do like to try and avoid the worst of the ethical bugbears where I can.

    Tari:

    My approach is to try to be as educated as I can be about the products I buy and where they come from and what their overall impact is; to make the best, most reasonable choice I can within my means and abilities; to take action where I can to push for better options; and to try not to feel guilty when I do compromise my values.

    Great advice. And probably the most reasonable option, I’m thinking.

    Telle:

    But then from a Health at Every Size approach.. could possible choosing the “diet”, “light”, or “low-fat” option of items be healthier at times?

    My feelings on that are that if you are listening to your body and that’s what your body wants, go for it.

    Kira:

    The other complicating factor I see here is the fact that we’re all just learning (well, some of us – like me – more recently than others) to eat what we *want*, rather than what we are told we *should*. I worry that it would be too easy here to fall back into that trap, just switching over a different moral standard for our definition of *should*.

    Great point, and I guess it touches on Jaed’s point as well about orthorexia. I can see how it would be easy to go from trying to make the best choices from the available products to an obessive situation, especially coming in from a diet mind set. That is swapping ‘bad foods’ for ‘bad products’.

    littlem:

    So I guess that makes me a Bad Consumer. (Shhhhh. Don’t tell the FTC.)

    snort. Better watch out.

    twilightriver

    I fully understand that there are many valid reasons that people take the more convenient route. Even I try to sometimes because I get fed up with having to go out of my way for a loaf of corn-free bread. However, I like to encourage everybody that it gets much easier as you get used to shopping this way. The more people who do it, the easier it gets for everybody who does it.

    Which is great, and I love how doing so supports smaller businesses. But even so, I guess we get back to the consumer-driven market again. If THEY can sell it to someone somehow, THEY will.

  10. 10 La di Da Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 2:05 pm

    I’ve noticed a few brands moving away from calling things “diet” if they’re low-sugar/fat/whatever. Cottees brand cordial doesn’t have “diet” cordial anymore, they have “No added sugar” cordial. (It still tastes just as awful, I expect.) For example. It’s probably part of the whole “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change” rebranding thing.

    Possibly Coke Zero is another example. I actually liked that for a while (Coke’s too sweet for me and so Diet Coke’s too artificially sweet) until I discovered aspartame has some weird effects on me.


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