The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 11, 2009

Let’s Talk Diets and Why Guilt Doesn’t Work.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Diets don’t work.” When it comes to lasting lifestyle changes, radical crash diets certainly don’t work. And I’m not just talking about food. Writers who decide to give up all plastic in one week are not likely to succeed in creating long-term sustainable changes either.

But there’s another element that can undermine our efforts at changing ourselves and the world: GUILT.

When I asked Fake Plastic Fish readers to take the Show Us Your (Plastic) Trash Challenge, I emphasized several times that guilt is not necessary or even helpful. Did I say this to make you guys feel better so that you’d participate in my little challenge? No way. And I hope those who took the challenge (and those who will take it in the future [have you done it yet?]) will come to understand what I have: that guilt gets in the way of seeing the truth.

I’m currently in the middle of reading an enlightening book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by David Kessler, former head of the FDA. Kessler spends many pages explaining scientifically how it is that we have evolved to crave certain types of highly palatable foods and then shows exactly how the food industry uses this information to design foods that are irresistible to us.

If we spend all our time feeling guilty about giving in to our cravings for salt, sugar, and fat, we lose sight of the bigger issue: Millions of dollars are spent every year to keep us in this cycle of craving and surrendering to foods that are not healthy for us. How can we expect to win this battle if we think the problem is all our fault?

Blaming ourselves doesn’t help. But making excuses for our behavior doesn’t help either.

What can we learn from keeping food diaries or tallying our plastic trash? What can we learn not only about our own habits and lifestyles but about the way our society itself is set up to promote waste and overindulgence?

Questioning who is “at fault” is important because it helps us realize that resisting plastic, just like resisting overeating, is not a matter of individuals “being good” but about fighting a systematic plan by companies to keep us entrapped in these unhealthy habits.

Interestingly, one of the participants in the Show Us Your (Plastic) Trash Challenge decided to tally only her food-related plastic and use the exercise to see if giving up plastic packaging would also lead to weight loss. It’s a good question, since so much junk food comes packaged in plastic, and many of these foods are exactly the types of engineered enticements that Kessler explains in his book.

What other kinds of links can we make between the types of products and packaging that are available and promoted to us and the sickness that many of us feel on a daily basis? And once we make these links and catch a glimpse of a problem that is vastly bigger than our individual selves, how can we fight back?

What are we doing about it?

Part of my intention for having people take the challenge is to provoke a certain amount of frustration. Once we get our plastic trash down to a level beyond which we’re not willing to go without extreme sacrifice, what then? How many of us are willing to take the next steps and speak out? If only writing some letters. Talking to our friends. Signing a petition. Or going further and creating a campaign.

I’m tossing these ideas out to you guys to chew on. I’ve personally been feeling overwhelmed ever since returning from Chicago, realizing that while my individual actions are crucial, they are not enough. I’m not interested in beating myself up over the occasional plastic wrapper when billions of dollars are spent to create and promote new plastic crap every day and entrap us in a cycle of overconsumption.

I’m looking for my next campaign. Are you?

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Lara S.
14 years ago

I loved this post. Guilt is one of my major enemies, it gets in most aspects of my life, so I get what you mean.
I think it's great that you're feeling the need to do something else besides your own almost plastic free lifestyle; it's logical to feel the need to do new things and in this case, it's not just out of boredom but the good you want to do to the world. Setting an example is just not enough to change the world, and I think you're more than up to the challenge of taking more massive and creative steps.
In the meantime, your readers are taking small steps and we will eventually catch up to you! Go Beth!!

14 years ago

This is a great blog with a lot of good information that I wouldn't know about otherwise. I'm about ready to revisit the plastic challenge to see if there's any change in our consumption of plastic. The main result so far has been to make the purchase of something packaged in plastic to be a conscious choice as opposed to just something that happens as a matter of course.
This winter though we'll be eating truly plastic free tomato paste (not even the coating on the bottom of glass jar's lid) as I dried organic tomatoes to make my own.
I'll be interested to see what your next campaign is. And before you mentioned it, I'd but The End of Overeating on my reading list. Democracy Now did a really good program with the author and another writer last Thursday. You can watch the show off their website if you didn't see it.

14 years ago

I try not to make myself feel guilty but I try to be more and more aware of the plastic in the things I purchase. Then when I'm looking for things to eat, I just can't fathom purchasing something with so much plastic packaging if there is something else available. I was stunned when I really looked with new eyes at a grocery store. Nearly everything is in plastic. It's really astonishing. Most people don't see it, they don't realize how much there is. I try to remember not to blindly just buy things but actually look at them. Then I make the decisions without having any guilt.

14 years ago

This is why it becomes so frustrating to me when people say losing weight is simply willpower! Like many other things, it might be willpower to a degree, but there are many things working against you coming from businesses. First, you have to figure out all the ways that you are being influenced to do things a certain way because of how food is formulated, placed, how you get around your city and countless other decisions. Once you are aware of these things, it might be easier to spot or understand what you need to look at when making a decision, but it generally requires more effort. The same idea applies all over the place, which is the sometimes overwhelming part to me.

14 years ago


In 10 weeks, I have lost 6lbs (or hope to keep that loss when I do my official weigh-in on Friday). Yes, I have been better at exercising but have not changed anything else. I am not 'dieting' per se. When I am hungry I eat. When I am not hungry, I try not to eat.

The difference is what I put in my mouth when I am hungry. I think working on my plastic free diet is working in terms of weight loss. I had to go to Portland for business for 4 days. That break from my household has really helped in that 'wandering' I referred to in my Challenge entries. I think I have managed to break the cycle of junk food in a major way. Mind you… I also got severely sick on my trip. I wonder if all that eating out was the culprit.

I feel like my personal life is so overwhelming that I don't know if I feel up to any activism. Definitely not looking for any. I have had to explain the challenge to a few people so I feel like I am getting the word out there without appearing like a nutcase.

John Costigane
14 years ago

Hi Beth,

Over here, Ready Meals are a big source of fat, salt and sugar. These are increasingly under attack from all sides, including from consumers, local traders, farmers and media.

Promoting better alternatives also reduces packaging waste, so its a win-win situation.

Zero Waste ideas are more mainstream now but we intend keeping the pressure up with refillables starting in supermarkets in September.

14 years ago

PS Sounds like froghair needs my WWFPFD T-shirt. LOL. BUt beth a side note- I reduce my plastic consumption and that is becuase of blogs like yours. Y'all show me the way.

14 years ago

Changing my diet has a green effect- less trash, healthier food. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes about 3 years ago in the hospital when I had Congestive heart failure caused by a bout with pneumonia, so I had no choice but change what I ate. Glad to say I am down about 50 pounds, have normal blod pressure, and my A1C says by glucose levels are pretty good. Now if I could get my triglycerides to cooperate and my bad cholesterol down. But anyway some of the changes I had to make were lose some weight, get more excersize, quit smoking (okay two out of three aint bad) But taking a rekindled interest in my garden and walking my dog gives my a better diet and excersize.
"Guilt sucks" is my motto.

14 years ago

The cycle of overconsumption drives me crazy. Even my little kids get caught up in it, the endless drive for 'more' and 'better'. And environmentalists do, too – we buy things because they're 'green', even though we don't always really need them.

I'm interested to hear what your next campaign is. I think I might be ready.

fem pen
14 years ago

While I've been doing my best to avoid plastic, sometimes you just can't. Like that plastic lining inside the cap of an olive oil jar. And there's no way I'm giving up olive oil.

So, if you are starting a new campaign, I'm in!

14 years ago

I sense that you are getting disheartened… I just want to let you know that you are making a difference. As a result of stumbling across your blog, I have reduced plastic in every aspect of my life. My refridgerator door has reused spaghetti jars with condiments that I have made to avoid buying condiments in plastic bottles. I am so happy with my nopoo and my safety razor (o: I've got my mug and reuseable plate at work. People see the things that I do and they are intrigued to also try them.
You have a really informative and interesting blog. I think you have a personality that really catches peoples ears, you are able to communicate tough messages in a way that people will still be receptive to the message. I think it will continue to grow with followers and the amount of learning that people will aquire and spread to others will grow exponentially.
Good Luck!

14 years ago

I'm glad you posted this – I feel a lot of guilt when I have (like the last commenter) that WWFPFD moment at the grocery store, and know that I can't always do as you do. It's good to think of it like a diet. You have to take small steps at first (-:

14 years ago

Even though I was a pretty crunchy enviro before, you have inspired me to use even less plastic in my life. But I have to admit, when I go to the grocery store and contemplate the cheeses, I have this WWFPFD? guilt complex going on. Thanks for the reminder about not feeling guilty. I do what I can to improve this planet, and I have to remember that that's so much more than most folks. Thanks!

Azura Skye
14 years ago

I've learnt so much from your blog. Now that I know it, I can't UNknow it, so even if I feel guilty, or if I don't, I will still carry with me an awareness of plastics and how people like you are working so hard to make a difference – there fore, in all good conscience I can't carry on as I used to.
Guilt doesn't work because it limits the joy you can feel when you've successfully managed to avoid plastic!