Healthy = Low-Calorie?

Sometimes, as hard as I try not to, it seems that I forget about the bubble I live in. Turns out, not everyone has a holistic view of health, not everyone values local foods, not everyone realizes the problems with reductive nutritionism.

Well, of course, you might say.

But this video that my father-in-law recently sent me still left me with my mouth hanging wide open:

Report-card time: 5 best, worst restaurants in America

In it, some journalist from Men's Health magazine, David Zinczenko, rates a bunch of "restaurants"* and gives them grades according to how "healthy" they are. Here's what they decide:

McDonald's: B+
Olive Garden: D+
Red Lobster: A-
Chick-Fil-A: A-
Chipotle: C-

The results are ridiculous, and the incredibly narrow criteria they use remind me how much the nutrition paradigm hasn't really moved beyond where it was 20 years ago.

Why does McDonald's get a relatively good score? Well, because of their "McDouble" burger and their oatmeal.  The former has only a few hundred calories, so that means it's healthy. And the's oatmeal, so it's gotta be healthy, right? Let's see what Mark Bittman has to say about that: McDonald's oatmeal has 21 ingredients--most of which are highly processed--and more sugar than a Snickers bar (definitely check out the whole Bittman article by following the link if you have a few minutes).

Zinczenko tells us that Chick-Fil-A is healthy because its chicken club, which includes "the works" with bacon and cheese and chicken, is only 400 calories. But is anyone stopping to ask why a sandwich with white bread and bacon and cheese and chicken is only 400 calories? What else is going into this sandwich to keep it at a "healthy" calorie level?

Come to think of it, no one's asking about what's in any of this food, at least not in terms of ingredients. The only data we have is calories, fat, and sodium--and only really the calories are being given any attention. Have we not move beyond the assumption that low-calorie = healthy? Apparently not.

And of course that means that Chipotle, the one restaurant on the list that doesn't just offer a variety of ways of putting together a bunch of processed ingredients, gets one of the worst scores. Yes, Zinczenko gives a nod to the "fresh quality ingredients and free-range meats" but because the calorie count is high, this is NOT HEALTHY. I agree that Chipotle's serving sizes are too large, but why do we ignore the health of the environment or the health of our animals or un-processed ingredients and lack of preservatives when measuring "health"?

Perhaps what makes me most sad of all is that this report is coming from Men's Health, a magazine which is published by Rodale Press. And although it may mostly produce glossy lifestyle publications today, Rodale Press and its original founder, J.I. Rodale, began the organic gardening movement in America in the 1940s. Rodale was one of the chief proponents of a healthier, chemical-free form of agriculture that paved the way for the relatively mainstream postion of organic agriculture today.** But now we see this corrupted view of health coming from such auspicious beginnings.  Could it have been otherwise?

What do you all think? Am I silly to find this report so shocking? Naive? What is the mainstream message about nutrition in today's media that you all are hearing?

* Of course, all these so-called "restaurants" are actually just chains, and many of them fast-food. 
** If you want to read more, stay tuned for my friend AC's forthcoming dissertation on Rodale!


  1. I'm definitely in the bubble. Not watching tv, I don't encounter commercials showing these "foods." The article not only has a ridiculously narrow version of "health," but acts as if chain fast food joints are the only option. How about you make your oatmeal and sandwiches at home, where they will be almost automatically cheaper and healthier. If you're going to indulge by eating out, why not go somewhere local and interesting?

    (Of course, if you live in a food desert/work 3 jobs, that is another situation-- but somehow I don't think Men's Health is aiming at this audience.)

  2. Also-- that hamburger just looks gross. No I will not "eat this"!

  3. No, you are not silly at all. This is appalling!! It is shocking that we still have the definition of lower calories = healther food. What can we do about this? --NB

  4. AZ,

    I agree with your conclusions, but I want to hear more! Suppose we set aside (for now) the ethical and environmental issues, and focus on the healthiness of the foods in question. I take it your suggestion is that macronutrients don't provide a very good metric for answering these types of questions. What other factors do you think should be taken into account, and why? What would be at the top of your list of healthy restaurants, and why would the chains mentioned in the article be at the bottom?

  5. This reminds me of a sign I saw at Brooklyn College the other day that made me laugh out loud. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it read something like: "one chocolate chip = four bunches of grapes." How does one do this kind of math???

  6. I agree that the article sneaks by a few slimy premises and that the underlying concept of "nutrition" is way simplistic, but I'm wondering whether, even if the authors in question had a proper understanding, they would be inclined an article about it, given that their magazine is distributed across the country, and, actually, the world. I see some sort of double-bind for the authors here: any sort of chain restaurant, in an effort to achieve national uniformity, will almost inevitably have to pump their food full of preservatives, processed food products, and CAFO meats, so claiming that food from any of them is healthy is bunk. On the other hand, though, mentioning to their readers in the other 49 states that there's a quirky little organic place in downtown Madison and that there might be one near you, too, doesn't seem that useful. I'm not trying to exculpate the authors, but is there any way that a national magazine can focus on anything other than national chains? Also, as JH asked, are there any national chains you would want to mention? Leaving aside arguments about animals and food miles, are there any national chains that could be considered "healthy" in the narrowest sense?


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