The One Psychological Trick Food Advertisers Like To Use To Deceive You And How You Can Make Sure What You're Eating Is Actually Healthy For You
For this week's post I wanted to talk to you about a HUGE issue in health foodie culture…
Selective Attention Marketing.
So as I have mentioned in prior posts, I am a HUGE psych nerd. I seriously tried my hardest to major in it in college, but because my school required everyone to do a thesis (which meant I would have had to have done a clinical study), I said y'all can miss me with all that noise, and ended up minoring in it. But know that I'm not over it (clearly, lol), and I always have to make it known that it is a major in my heart.
Alright, so now that that's out of the way, one of the most memorable comments I remember hearing from one of my psych professors when I was in school is the following...
"If there is one thing you must never forget about humans, it is that at some level we are all cognitive misers."
So "cognitive miser" is just a fancy, psychological term that means that the human mind doesn't really like to think too much. We like it when things are quick to understand and as clear, and concise as possible.
Except there's just one problem...
When is anyone ever really being clear and concise and easy to understand... Even when we look at the GIF above of the infamous post-it note episode in Sex And The City where Berger broke up with Carrie on a post-it note. Sure, it's written in a clear, concise, and easy to understand way, but the action of having done it on a post-it note is as complex as my entire sophomore year in geometry.
And unfortunately, how "healthy" food is marketed to us is set up in the same way as this SATC moment. On the surface, everything looks clear, concise, and easy to understand, but in reality, there is a lot more (sometimes crappy) stuff going on than most people take the time to notice.
But the purpose behind me writing this post lies in three simple points:
1. To help you understand what selective attention is.
2. To help you recognize what it looks like in the foods you buy.
3. To provide you with strategies to help you guard against it when you're buying "healthy" food.
So let's jump right in!
1. So, What Is Selective Attention?
So imagine it's a Tuesday night. You've just had an extremely long day at work/school, and all you want to do is go home, and zone out to some Netflix. But then "PANG!" Your stomach starts to wild out, and you remember that you don't have any groceries at home to slap something together. You could eat out, but you're really trying to eat healthier this year so, begrudgingly, you drag yourself to the grocery store.
As you are walking down the long, overstocked, brightly-colored aisles, trying to find anything that fits into your diet plan, you keep getting bombarded with texts from a group thread about a surprise birthday party later on in the week. As you continue to walk around, your stomach just continues to growl louder and louder.
All of a sudden, a woman with a child comes down your aisle, and the child starts to throw a temper tantrum, and you suddenly realize you have to go to the bathroom. Lawd, talk about being in the eye of the perfect grocery-shopping shit storm (or pee storm, in this case).
You see a brightly colored bag of chips that say in big bold lettering "low carb and high protein," and grab them. For some reason it feels like the mom with the screaming child is following you, and you can't help but find yourself losing your mind. You then find yourself face to face with a box that says quinoa pasta, and that has a giant sticker on it that says it has 20% more protein than the average pasta. So you grab that, too.
You love cookies, and while just taking a glance down another aisle, your phone starts to ring. It's one of your friends from the group text. As you're chatting with them, you see some cookies with a bright label on the front that says "low-fat, sugar-free, and 100% no guilt," and throw those in your cart.
And finally, as you can literally start to feel dribblets of pee trying to squeeze their way out of your lower half, you grab a few protein bars that say in a really pretty font that they are a good source of fiber and protein. You feel good staring into your cart full of "healthy" goodies, and while it's hard for you to leave that bottle of wine on the shelf, you quickly head for the register (and the nearest bathroom).
Is this grocery store trip from hell familiar to anyone? (Definitely me, 1000-times over).
As people just trying to get through their day, we are exposed to an overabundance of sensory information. The kid crying. Our phone ringing. The bright colors of boxes and labels. Every second of every day (outside of when we are sleeping), we come across so much sensory information that it is almost impossible for our brains to pay attention to everything. We have to make a choice; what gets our attention, and what fades into the background.
Food advertisers are very aware of how overloaded our minds are on a constant basis.They know that at our core as human beings, we are cognitive misers that just have too much going on in our brains at every waking moment of every day, and that literally taking the time to think about what we are going to eat is asking for too damn much. They know that the last thing you would ever want to be doing is grocery shopping, and they know you just want to be in and out ASAP.
They are also very aware of the new consumer push towards wanting to eat healthier. They know that we WANT to eat better, but, unfortunately, they are also very well aware of the fact that some people are fine with just being sold the IDEA of being healthy.
And because of that many of these advertisers understand that all they have to do is promote the right key words that people are trained to look for like "fat-free," "high protein," "low carb," "sugar-free," and so on, because many people won't look beyond those words into the ingredients list.
"High protein" is actually one of the best/worst marketing tricks because of how our brains have been trained to react to the word protein. To many people, having a high protein diet is one of the "healthiest" diets out there. So whenever we see food advertised as "high protein," it's like all of our guards go down, and we immediately assume that it could do us no harm.
Now that is the power of selective attention.
Selective attention, by definition, is "the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Attention is a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters." (Source: A Very Well Mind).
So by using terms like "fat-free," "high protein," "low carb," "sugar-free," and so on, advertisers are preying on your limited attention resources, and making your brain tune into the parts of their product that fit your needs, and making you tune out the other "unimportant" details.
The problem is that a lot of those "unimportant" details can actually be extremely important, and part of the reason why you haven't been able to reach your health and fitness goals.
In addition to using these selective attention trigger words, some brands are now starting to do what I call "selective portion attention", where they selectively advertise the nutritional benefits of either a larger portion or an entire box of a product, rather than one serving. This then allows their product to look morenutritionally valuable while also tricking your mind into thinking you're getting more of a nutrient per serving than you actually are.
So here's the thing, Queen. I don't call attention to this issue so that we can play the blame game, and get mad at advertisers. Sure, it's shitty that they would prey on our limited attention like that, but at Yes Queen, we are all about using the clarity we find to create choices that will lead to viable, and successful outcomes. Blame very rarely gets us to a good place, but keeping it moving, understanding where our roadblocks are, and creating a plan for when those roadblocks come about will almost always put us in that better place.
So I'm sure you're now wondering, how do I protect myself from selective attention marketing?
2. How To Know If What You're Buying/Eating Is Actually Healthy
So the first thing I want to try and help my readers re-learn is this idea of healthy being "one-size-fits-all." What may be healthy for my body might not be healthy for your body, and vice versa. Sure, there are common foods that might be healthy for us like vegetables, but even then, there are certain vegetables that might be off-limits to certain people for various reasons.
The whole point of this post, and the mission of YQ, is to re-affirm the power within you to discover what healthy looks like for you. As well as to help you learn what makes your body feel good. So when we think about buying "healthy" food, I want you to keep in mind that it is about buying healthy food for you. I am simply just providing you with the tools to figure out how to make a better judgment call.
Ok so now that that's out of the way...what's really tricky about selective attention marketing is that not all brands that do it are bad. Some brands are purely doing it as a way to compete for your attention, and have absolutely nothing to hide, like Banza or RX Bars. RX Bars literally has the ingredients list on the front of every bar, which is definitely a form of selective attention marketing, but once you do the "Daysha nutritional value test," you'll see that every thing checks out fine.
The other thing to keep in mind is that when I say "bad," I don't mean that the food is necessarily bad for you, but rather that the act of tricking your brain into focusing on certain ingredients/nutritional values and making you lose sight of other important factors in the food is what can be detrimental to your health.
It's still totally ok to eat certain high calorie/macronutrient foods that you love. It really is just about fully understanding what role they play in the daily story of what you eat, and how to make an adequate amount of room to eat it so that you don't end up storing excess macros that turn into excess weight.
So here's an example!
So this is Halo Top ice cream, and they are branding themselves as a "healthier" alternative to traditional ice cream. To me, they kicked off the trend of ice cream/frozen dessert brands labeling the caloric value of the entire container right on the front. There are two reasons for doing this:
1. To entice you by it's low caloric value.
2. Halo Top recognizes that most people will eat the whole pint of ice cream rather than the standard serving, so they have "done the work for us" by putting the whole caloric value of the pint on the front, so that it also allows you to feel guilt-free about eating the whole thing.
And as you'll notice on the bottom right, they even have the high protein plug as well.
So on the surface, it's less than 300 calories for the whole pint, which makes us feel guilt-free about eating the whole thing or less. It is a good source of protein, which what ice cream ever is? And to top it off, it's in a cute ass package.
So I'm sure you're all wondering what the hell could be wrong with it???
So if you don't know how to read an ingredients list, here is a guide that will go much more in depth. But basically you want to understand two things:
1. Ingredients lists are formatted to have the most used ingredients at the beginning of the list, and the least used ingredients at the end of the list. So you want to make sure that the first few ingredients on the list are foods that you can either pronounce, or that you are familiar with.
2.You want to be mindful of the ratio of foods you do know to foods you don't know. If there are more foods in the ingredients list that you don't know what they are, there's a good chance they might not be things that you want in your body as well.
Based off of these two things, there is only one ingredient that I'm unfamiliar with (vegetable glycerin), and after doing a quick Google search, I discovered that it's basically a clear, odorless, sweet-tasting fluid that comes from palm, soy, and coconut oil. It's fairly low on the list so I'm not too concerned about it.
Now let's check out the nutrition facts...
So when we look at their nutrition label, we want to remember that calories are not the defining factor in terms of deciding whether or not something is "good" for you to eat. It is actually about striking a balance between
Understanding how many calories you are consuming per serving
Knowing if those macros (fats, carbs, and protein) per serving are worth that amount of calories
And knowing whether or not you have the amount of calories/macros left in your diet for the day to be able to afford having this treat.
When we look at the Halo Top ice cream, remember that the numbers shown here are the amount per serving. If we were to adjust it to represent the amount of macros per pint like the front of the container does for calories, it would look like this:
Total Fat: 8g (4g Sat. Fat)
Total Carbs: 56g (12g of Fiber, 25g of Sugar)
Total Protein: 20g
So here's the thing. I'm not showing you these numbers to say that eating this brand of ice cream is bad for you. But I want to teach you how to make adjustments in your diet so that you can eat the things you like, and not have to worry about gaining excess weight. So when I look at these numbers, I would say that if you wanted to eat the whole pint of Halo Top, it would be fine, but it would then mean that you would want to be mindful of the amount of carbs that you eat for the rest of the day.
Even though eating the whole pint is relatively low-calorie when you look at other ice cream brands/frozen desserts, it has a very high amount of carbs for that serving size. And with the majority of those carbs coming from sugar, it doesn't make it that nutritionally valuable.
You see high carb foods aren't as bad as health media makes them out to be. Fiber actually falls under the carbohydrate umbrella, and has amazing health benefits. What can make high carb diets nutritionally invaluable to someone, however, is based off of two things:
1. How efficient your body is in burning off the energy from carbs.
2. What are the source of the carbs? Is it coming from sugar or fiber? And which one is more dominant?
As countless research has shown, having a diet that is on the sugar-heavy side can put you at risk for many health complications.
Now, again, this isn't to say you can't have Halo Top at all, but rather that in order to keep you from over-ingesting carbs that would eventually turn to fat, you have a few options to consider:
Eating the whole pint, but being mindful of lowering your carb intake for the rest of the day (especially having low sugar foods).
Eating half a pint or one serving, especially if there are other carbs you want to have or are planning on having throughout your day.
You also might want to factor in what time of day you would eat something like this as well. If I were eating this earlier in the day or right before a workout, I actually wouldn't be too concerned about eating the whole pint because I could use the extra carbs to help fuel me through my day/workout. But if it's closer to the end of the day, and you've had a pretty high carb day, I would personally limit how much of it I ate until the next day.
3. Daysha's Selective Attention Marketing Checklist
So now that we understand what selective attention marketing is, and we've gone through a few real world examples to recognize what it looks like, here is a TL;DR checklist for you to look back at whenever you go grocery shopping.
Do I recognize the majority of the ingredients on the ingredients list?
Are most of the ingredients I recognize towards the beginning of the list? If not, am I comfortable not knowing that a large quantity of these unknown ingredients will be going into my body?
Is the serving size realistically a portion I would eat? (if not, make sure to adjust to what you would typically want to eat or what would make you feel full, and adjust the macros to represent that amount... and remember that learning about this number is just a part of gaining clarity. It has nothing to do with shaming you or making you feel guilty. So please be as honest as possible when calculating how much you would actually want to eat).
After the macros/calories are adjusted to the serving size that you would naturally eat, make a decision about whether or not the overall caloric value of the serving size you want to eat is worth the amount of macronutrients you would receive. For this, I like to follow the Altman rule.
Based off of the clarity you gain from doing the prior step, take control by planning out when would be the ideal time of day to consume it, or if you need to re-adjust the portion size. For something that is higher carb, I would aim to eat it towards the beginning of your day.
Then be confident in what you learned, and tell those "health" trolls to mind their business! Because you are out here making confident, unapologetic choices, for you and by you!