The Maria Diet & Other Post Holiday Thoughts On Food
I returned from the holiday break well-rested, energized and ready to go. I only wish I was as light on my feet as I was in early December. Like many of you, no doubt, I’m starting the year a few pounds heavier, the result of too many good meals and luscious treats over the past few weeks.
This is the time of year that when our personal, never-ending inner conflict between the need for satiety and pleasure with our desire for to stay fit and trim reaches its peak.
In the same vein, it’s also a good time to take a look at how marketers at restaurant chains and packaged foods companies might start rethinking the meaning of “customer satisfaction.”
Quality versus Quantity
As my 16-year-old son said as four of us scarfed down two amazingly rich and huge desserts in a Palm Desert (California) casual dining restaurant last week, “This place is a great if you’re going by calories per dollar.”
Quite right. Abundance is All-American and the desire for large portions have been hard-wired into our brains. And despite the obesity dilemma and government imperatives to provide calorie counts and other nutritional information, the dominant message we see from quick service and casual dining food chains is still more food for your money.
While clearly unhealthy for American weight and cholesterol levels, it’s not all that healthy for the long-term health of the food industry either.
Reconciling the need for quality – of food, of health, of life – against our uniquely American, hard-wired, culturally ingrained desire for immediate gratification and filling up is more about personal choice and responsibility rather than a corporate or government mandate. Either way, it is a difficult and complex challenge.
There is no short-term fix. “All you can eat,” whether it’s pancakes at IHOP, seconds, thirds and fourths at Hometown Buffet or shrimp at Red Lobster are visceral, easy to understand, attractive offers which only work that much better when consumers are financially stressed.
But if Americans continue to grow obese, it is likely that our collective physical health, emotional well-being and self-esteem will decline in direct proportion. And we want happy, healthy customers, don’t we? Not just in the short-term, but over the course of their long(er), happy(er) lives.
Healthy, Sensible & Enjoyable Eating
I’m not a nutritionist, but I have read many articles and a few books about all kinds of diets and eating philosophies. There are food pyramids. There are diets focused on blood types, low-carbs, low fat, and high protein. There are vegan, vegetarian and no-dairy diets. There are diets that suggest mixing food types at every meal, and those claiming that eating your proteins and carbs hours apart will prevent weight gain.
But there’s only been one approach that’s ever made any real sense to me. It’s the simplest of all, but also the most difficult. Eat whatever you want, but limit your calorie intake.
After all, it’s not really hamburgers that kill people. It’s people eating too many hamburgers that kill people, i.e., themselves.
Some “Food Rules” To Live By And The “Maria Diet”
The waif model Kate Moss was quoted as saying, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny.” Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live begged to differ. He thought bacon tasted better. It’s the middle ground we need to search for.
There are two strategies for eating healthy that I find refreshingly sane and simple. The first comes from Michael Pollan, author of “The Omniovore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” In his new book “Food Rules,” a fast and easy read, he sums it all up with this straightforward, common sense advice:”
“Eat real food, not too much of it, and more plants than meat.”
“Or, put another way,” he writes, “get off the modern western diet, with its abundance of processed food, refined grains and sugars, and its sore lack of vegetables, whole grains and fruit.” A summary of Pollan’s “ food rules” can be found on a “Health & Cooking” post on Web MD.
Then, there’s something I like to call “The Maria Diet,” named for a baby sitter we once had when my kids were young. Maria (now a medical doctor) was a UCLA undergrad with nary an ounce of fat on her body. A beautiful young woman, she never counted calories or watched what she ate. Her secret: Take a few bites and walk away.
She ate the ice cream, the burgers, the cake, the chocolate bars, the chips, the pizza – everything. But all in great moderation.
Which reminds me of a joke. Rosie O’Donnell, in her stand up routine many years ago, skewered the heavily advertised “Slim-Fast Plan.” “Slim-Fast three times a day, one sensible meal, and you’ll lose weight.”
“Well,” Rosie said, “If I could eat a f***ing sensible meal in the first place why would I need Slim-Fast?”
Exploring Long-Term Strategies To Chance Perceptions, Eating Behaviors – And Building Long-Term Brand Health
Moderation and eating “not too much of it” is tough, especially when faced with a post-holiday freezer-full of gooey, chocolate-y, yummy brownies brought by dinner guests. Or, when faced with an amazing buffet spread at Sunday Brunch or the Double Double Combo at In-N-Out Burger.
But is deprivation really any better? Do we need the government to force us to print calorie, fat and sodium content at the point-of-sale to dissuade customers from “harming” themselves with that tasty slice of pepperoni pizza? Can’t people enjoy themselves?
Food should be something to savor, not something to be dreaded and shunned. And there is little evidence that government efforts are doing any good.
According to several studies cited in a recent New York Times Op-Ed Piece, penned not by food industry advocates but professors of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, New York City’s menu-labeling legislation has had little or no impact on calorie consumption in fast food outlets. Their obvious conclusion: “People eat too much because calorie dense foods are convenient and cheap, with large portion sizes priced to encourage overeating.”
And from the marketer’s perspective, those imperious, parent-like government efforts – likely to continue and intensify in the short-term – can’t be enhancing the brand experience, even if consumers are ignoring them to a great extent.
Can we evolve to an approach, dare I say, more European in nature, where we can have our cake – albeit a smaller slice – and eat it too? Probably not anytime soon. “This is so good you just need a few bites to be satisfied,” while true in many cases, won’t fly in the U.S. as a dominating marketing strategy in the near term.
But we are seeing some excellent efforts by marketers to come to grips with this dilemma. Coca-Cola has come out with a 7.5 ounce can that packs only 90-calories. Cookie and snack makers have developed packages with single, 100 calorie servings. The Macaroni Grill, though in direct response to a Today Show segment that described their chicken and artichoke sandwich as having “the calorie equivalent of 16 Fudgesicles,” has reformulated many of it’s popular dishes to eliminate up to one-third of the calories.
I would love to see a fast-feeder or casual restaurant chain test, as part of their menu, what we might call the “Espresso Concept.” Rather than “lite” food, an entire section of the menu devoted to small servings of indulgent foods. Less is more. Smaller is better. Higher quality and satisfying. Leaves you feeling great, energized, not weighed down. You feel good about yourself, not guilty. That was really worth it!
Difficult but possible. And the rewards – greater profitability, getting government off our backs, healthier, happier consumers, brand loyalty – seems to be well worth the long-term investment and patience required.