Is Lean Cuisine Still a Diet Food Company?

dinner is served
Dinner is served.

Reader Nicole Geurin MPH, RD suggested today’s blog topic. She asked what I thought about how Lean Cuisine, long-time makers of low calorie, low fat frozen foods, has been retooling their brand to be less about weight and dieting. This video is one example.

 

I think the video is wonderful, so I checked out Lean Cuisine’s website to see what else they’re doing and they are clearly trying to rebrand themselves away from weight loss. They are even offering a filter for your browser that eliminates the word “diet” from your online searches (though if you don’t just search on the word “diet” that also works quite well). They have eliminated any reference to weight loss on their website, which is a pretty bold change. So for now let’s give Lean Cuisine the benefit of the doubt – they are no longer about dieting or perhaps even weight loss.

They also have a page on which they claim they are devoted to women’s wellness, although how that manifests itself in their products, I’m not really sure, and they aren’t specific. When it comes to food, women’s wellness isn’t all that different from general human wellness. I mean, there’s not some kind of menses milk that I’m aware of, or ovulation menu that we need to follow (Yes, some vitamin and mineral DRIs are slightly different between the sexes. That doesn’t usually translate to radically different diets for men and women). Unless they mean…wait, could it be? Might “women’s wellness” translate to our perceived need to eat less in order to weigh less? Which in some circles, is known as a diet. They’re definitely not saying it, so I don’t want to make any assumptions here. Maybe we just need to take a look at some of their products a little closer to see if they put their money where their (and our) mouths are…

Brief interlude: This is by no means an endorsement, but I actually like the taste of many Lean Cuisine meals. More on that in a minute.

…So I looked at the product list. I’m familiar with the Lean Cuisine products because they take up serious real estate in the supermarket freezer section, where I’m always looking for satisfying, filling, tasty and reasonably priced frozen meals without a ton of sodium in them (fun fact: these don’t exist). Looking at the images of the meals in their boxes on the website, they don’t seem to have changed significantly recently, though they do have a pretty wide selection of different “collections.” On the front of the box, they show a photo of a tasty and seemingly much larger meal than what is in the box, as well as little boxes showing the calories, fat, fiber, protein, sodium and carbohydrates. This information is required by law to be somewhere on the box in the nutrition panel so I’m not sure why it has to be displayed so prominently on the front, too — especially the calories. While it can be useful to know the amounts of certain nutrients in foods, especially for certain diseases, I always think the calorie count is useless and hasn’t done anyone a lick of good. Anyway…

Brief interlude part II: A few years ago when I was experiencing a lot of digestion problems from stress, I found it necessary to eat small, light meals more frequently. I thought Lean Cuisine would be perfect for this, and as I said, I actually found I enjoyed the taste. Lunch would come around and I’d eat one and…it wouldn’t even touch my hunger. So I decided to eat two at the same time in the hope of creating the satisfaction of a full meal. Well, it turns out 2 x 0 = 0, and even two left me craving more within an hour. After three days of that, I was ravenous and ready to eat the world. I had accidentally put myself on a diet eating those suckers!

…But here is the real problem as I see it. I looked at the nutrition facts, and the meals are roughly 250-350 calories, with most meals falling under 300 calories and one as low as 170 calories. Now, you know me, I’m not a dietitian to prescribe specific calorie targets for anyone (although clinical practice is quite different; in this setting we do actually calculate calories, protein and fluid requirements to make sure our patients are meeting their nutrition needs. But back in the not-sick, intuitive eating world…not so much), so if the meals satisfy you, by all means, enjoy them. They don’t satisfy me. Across any population, there is going to be a wide range of appetites. Some women eat less and will find the size and make-up of these meals satisfying; others, like me, need more. So here’s a lesson about women’s health and wellness: we are all a little different, with needs and appetites varying widely from person to person. Why isn’t Lean Cuisine addressing that aspect of our “wellness” by making different sizes of meals?

Brief interlude part III: I just told my significant other that I was writing about Lean Cuisine and their shift away from diet lingo and he said, “So are they finally naming them ‘Not Enough For Me Cuisine?'” Spot on, my dear, spot on. He once liked the grilled sandwiches (and I gotta admit, that microwave-grilling technology is impressive; if only they could use it for good instead of diet) but found that even two were not really enough for him. I know very few men who could tolerate eating so little at one meal, so it seems like they are targeting women after all…

What’s the bottom line, then? Yes, I think it’s wonderful that Lean Cuisine has moved away from diet lingo and has eliminated any reference to weight loss on their site. That’s a win. But for me, they’re still a no-go because they don’t meet my needs, even though I’m a woman and they profess to care about women’s wellness. It’s up to you to decide for yourself if, just because they say they aren’t diet foods, they aren’t diet foods.

For those of us that don’t want to give our hard-earned cash to diet companies this could be complicated. Because if a diet food company changes its branding but not much else, has anything changed at all? Does this represent a genuine move away from the pervasive culture of dieting and weight loss or just another example of co-opting of body positive, non-diet language to sell diet products?

Podcast!

Check out the latest Dietitians Unplugged podcast in which we discuss the misconception that intuitive eating is for weight loss.

4 thoughts on “Is Lean Cuisine Still a Diet Food Company?

  1. Nicole Geurin, RD January 18, 2016 / 9:54 am

    Thanks for weighing in on the topic! That picture is hilarious.

    In high school, used to occasionally eat Lean Cuisines as a snack. (I agree that they are not filling enough to be a stand-alone meal.) But I have moved away from frozen meals since home-cooked tastes so much better.

    I don’t think I’ll be buying Lean Cuisine anytime soon, but I am happy to see one fewer ‘improve yourself by dieting’ message out here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • GlenysO January 18, 2016 / 10:11 am

      Agreed and thanks for suggesting the topic! I’d love all my lunches to be home-cooked (and often they are leftovers) but sometimes I don’t have the time to make something – a truly healthy, satisfying (and for me, lower sodium) froze meal would hit the spot. Hm…maybe that’ll be my next business venture – making yummy and affordable and healthy frozen meals. LOL

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  2. watchheremerge January 20, 2016 / 7:49 pm

    HA! This whole thing, HA! And well said.

    [I have a love hate relationship with Special K cereal. Love the cereals (mmmm yogurt and chocolate blobs IN THE CEREAL? ummm….YES) however HATE the marketing. What will you gain when you lose was perhaps one of the most infuriating diet campaigns ever and even when they proclaimed “ditch the scale” there were actually still pictures of a scale on the back of the box. So I have my {cereal} and eat it too by buying the generic. Take THAT, kelloggs.]

    Liked by 1 person

    • GlenysO January 20, 2016 / 8:23 pm

      That is very funny because I actually have the same problem with Special K. I like the taste, and hate the evil marketing. I haven’t found the generic, I guess I’ll try to find it. Also, I make mine much heartier by mixing it with some delicious vanilla-almond granola – food I never ate while on a diet because it was too high fat. I didn’t know what I was missing!!!

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