Watch out for calories in free food

Originally published in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza (link), November 23, 2010. 748 calories – 44 grams of fat, 2400mg of sodium and more high fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and other dietary nasties than you can shake a stick at. Things that I, and probably many of you normally shun, or at least think twice about — calories, sodium, high fructose corn syrup, saturated fats and other dietary nasties. That is, unless it's free. Recently, I found myself standing with a small crowd of anxious folks hovering about a charming older gentleman, ignoring his patter as he stalled. We were waiting for the food. Cheese pupusas, the latest offering on the skillet and frying slower than they were snapped up. Across the aisle, a woman in a hair net must have drawn a shorter straw on assignments today. She had the yogurt.

I don't have anything against Costco, but a single pass through the aisles offered up 748 calories that day, more than many of us budget for lunch. And that's if you don't swing back around for seconds. I didn't really want a cheese pupusa, but, after all, it was free. Somehow that made it OK. Surely my arteries and waistline understand that it doesn't count — right?

I suspect most of us do the same in countless small choices throughout the day — the snacks left out in the break room or offered by a friend. Somehow the choices we would normally make, is derailed by the magic of free.

In “Predictably Irrational,” Dan Arielly discusses the inexplicable power the concept of free has over our psyches. How time and time again individuals will make a less wise choice, perhaps even a choice that carries a cost — of time, resources, or here calories. Choices that most would not make if it were not for the lure of free. Often people will make these choices even when they don't really want the product.

If we take a moment, we all know that even free calories count. The scale certainly knows and as they add up over the years, so does our blood pressure and joints. Like everything in your diet, or your life for that matter, you just need to be aware of the hidden costs of your decision and consider it the same way you would if your dollars were on the line. It can be surprisingly hard, but empowering to bring the same decision-making skills to bear even against the marketing trump card of free.

So after all, I gave those cheese pupusas a pass. It didn't keep me from snitching a piece of fresh baked pumpkin bread on the way out, though. That was a conscious choice, just like what went in my cart that day, but hey, a girl's gotta live a little.

—Dr. Rebecca Gelber is an Incline Village resident and graduate of The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is an adjunct professor with the UNR School of Medicine and practices locally at Tahoe Aesthetic and Integrative Medicine, 775-298-1750,