Too tired to cook, many women pop low-fat meals into the microwave and pat themselves on the back for eating "healthy." What's in the diet food women eat? According to Jeff Scot Phillips, the founder of two health food companies, health food is often full of a load of shit. Phillips was a personal trainer passionate about health and helping his clients lose weight until he broke into the health food industry. As his business grew and he collaborated with other health food companies, he realized the corruption in the world of diet foods.
Philips decided to leave his company and expose the health food industry, writing a new book called Big Fat Food Fraud: Confessions of a Health Food Hustler. The book explores everything from Weight Watchers to diet foods' labels. Broadly spoke to Phillips about his decision to blast the health food industry and what's really going on at diet companies. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)
What made you decide to write a book exposing the health food industry?
When I started off making food, I wasn't doing all these horrible things. Then once I took on investors and got a bigger level and the market demanded things, it started getting to me—all the games and the lies we had to tell to continue to sell food and have a market share. I just hated all the manipulation.
When dieters fail, how do companies use that as an opportunity to upsell people?
I used to listen to Weight Watchers recordings. When the women went to those meetings and they're upset, even if they're upset with Weight Watchers, whatever they're upset with, they're literally primed to buy what they're recommended next. That's the coaching model that they have: the group meet. It's from a business point of view a really genius move, because everyone thinks they're being coached and supported, and it's just a giant emotional sales meeting. My old company used the same model. We didn't do it as well as they did, but we did use it for a while. We knew that if you can get them on the phone for coaching, they would pay for coaching, but they would also listen to whatever you say, because they're talking to sales person and they don't realize that. That's a shitty thing.
Does Oprah's involvement in Weight Watchers play in the same way, since she acts as an emotional guru for women to follow?
Deep down, I like to believe that Oprah means the best. But she's a very shrewd business woman, too, and she looks at the bottom line—she must. I really can't speak for Oprah, but it's business. If everyone loses weight, we don't have customers. We need people to not get too far from their weight. On top of that, the whole point thing. We used a similar thing; we designed a color coding system that kind of copied it. That kind of point system takes people's mind off that they are eating. It just allows you to sell them more products—that's literally the point of it. When you do something like that, like the points for example, it puts [on] their minds [that] health bars are on the same scale as kale. It's on the same playing field as any type of vegetable or lean meat. All of a sudden you forget what you're eating and you just pay attention to the point or the colors.
Do you think women specifically are being targeted and kind of being taken advantage of by the health food industry and the health industry in general?
That's one of the sickest parts of [the industry]. Last time I checked, [Weight Watchers was] 90 percent women. We almost have to target them. When I worked with one of three biggest food retailers in the United States, we used marketing to target women in every way you could think of. Some of the big ones were playing to their insecurities—we literally designed marketing materials for the thigh gap. When you hold your arm out and you shake the flab on your arm, we would write stuff about that. We would absolutely play to the feminist thing. I felt like such a jackass doing it, but we did it. Something like, "Take Back Your Power!" or "You can do this! You don't have to do what men want you to do!" That planted feminism kind of thing. Really, really crappy marketing tactics.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about the health food industry?
Just one? I would boldly stand by the claim that health food, today's health food is worse for you than junk food. It's usually the same thing; the difference is that no one eats Fritos or Papa John's thinking it's good for them. When you eat that, you know you're off your plan, but people don't realize that the health food today is almost the same thing [as junk food], and they eat a ton of it. It's kind of like the snack foods, in the 80s and 90s. When that first came out, everyone [went] nuts. I remember my mother getting those things. They were packed full of sugar!
People think that food labels are there to tell them about what's in their food, but it's the complete opposite. Food labels are there to help us sell you stuff. They're just an extension of every other part of the package or wrapper. I tell people, "Food labels are like pick up lines: They're exaggerated, they're manipulative, and if you fall for them you end up being screwed."
What are some key marketing terms that draw people into believing healthy foods are healthy?
Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, nailed it when he said that anytime a food highlights any of its ingredients or promotes how healthy it is, it's a lie. He's right. The whole game is about distracting people. It's kind of like a magic trick. If we're pointing out to you, "Hey, look over here because it's low fat!" it's because we're distracting you from the fact that it's high sugar, for example—people fall for that. Anything people believe—whether it's the numbers, calories, the grams, the whole ingredient list—can be manipulated. Or just any of the buzzwords, whether it's coconut water, paleo, gluten-free or organic, grass fed. I'm not saying that stuff wouldn't be good for you, all things being equal, but we totally use all of those to trick people into eating crap.
From your role as an advocate now, what do you think people are most consistently shocked by about the health food industry?
No one seems to believe me that the smartest thing that you could do is just not ever read food labels. I promise the food label isn't going to tell you anything. If you're reading the food label, you've already lost. You're off course. You'll make the wrong decision, I'll promise you. The more [the industry] teaches you about nutrition, the fewer smart choices you will make always. Always.