by Dante Zappala

I am in love with the Giant in Flourtown. And, like anything related to love, it is complicated. There are times when the chicken goes bad after two days, and I swear the store off for good. Yet on the next visit, they will simultaneously offer free samples of beer from New Belgium Brewery and the store brand bacon.

I’m mostly drawn in by their price on sweet potatoes, which I consume a lot of and cost half of what my local Acme charges. But I can’t rely on Giant to always have sweet potatoes. They sell them like Target sells snow pants. They are abundant in November and scarce in January, which is when you probably need them the most (both sweet potatoes and snow pants).

Nonetheless, I go religiously every two weeks, spending around $200 a visit. When I can, I’ll pull a kid along. Food shopping as it relates to both nutrition and budgeting may be one of the more important life skills I can impart on them.

Society doesn’t necessarily make it easy to teach these lessons. “Calories are bad,” my oldest told me as we, interestingly enough, prepared to gorge on a s’mores pizza at Earth Bread + Brewery. I explained how that wasn’t true – how we need calories to live.

This sentiment likely developed because of my watch. Despite my previous ramblings aspersing GPS enabled watches, I broke down and bought a low-end Garmin around Christmas time. I’ve adapted and found a few features I like, such as the heart rate monitor. One element that I am surprisingly hooked on is the step and calorie counter. It provides a context to my day that I hadn’t previously considered in much detail.

Because my kids are bigger technophiles than even me, they’ve become hyper focused on my watch and the data it produces. They are constantly asking me about my totals or simply grabbing my wrist to find out for themselves. And in doing that, they came to see this dichotomy: steps are good, calories are bad.

Given they have young minds that are particularly susceptible to marketing ploys, that comes as no surprise. The exercise, nutrition and wearable technology industries all benefit from framing our daily output and intake as an epic battle of good versus evil. I’ve watched perfectly healthy people struggle with a sense of shame for simply meeting their daily caloric needs with decent food.

We have related fads like fasting and detox, all aimed at people believing they need to repent. We must purge, they tell us. Exercise and food should exist in harmony. Instead, they become needlessly entangled in a jumbled matrix of pushes and pulls. Rather than symbiosis, where instinct and necessity are background programs running on the operating system, we have a marketplace of ideas and apps that deliberately sow confusion.

Dr. Oz and his ilk prey on catchy ideas with no substance or science behind them. They do this for one simple reason, and it is not to make us healthier. Like the rest of us, they just want to make money.

In reality, our liver does a perfectly adequate job of “cleansing” the body every day. Hunger is an excellent indicator that one should eat. There is no proven magic ratio of macronutrients to ensure you’ll lose weight, have more energy, or whatever other promise a certain diet makes.

With people starving around the world, a whole group of us who live in the richest nation in the world have come to believe that we need to starve ourselves to be healthy. In a world where people are confined by injustice and violence, we need motivational books and custom soundtracks before we will move our bodies in the abundant free space and free time our privilege bestows.

When my kids try the “Don’t worry, Dad” line on me, I always respond by telling them that I am out of worry. I’ve used it all up. They never have to worry about me worrying. But in truth, I do worry about how the marketing influences of food and health will impact them.

Technology coupled with sound advice can and certainly does help a lot of people stay fit. But if we don’t let common sense drive, the anti-oxidant cults will take the wheel and the paleo diet will step on the gas.

Taking my kids to Giant is mostly about them witnessing how I interact with food. We have our staples. We’ll take chances with something we’ve never tried before.

We reach the fulcrum at the end of the trip, when we buy our frozen food just before checking out. The Klondikes stare back at us from the cold, making a silent plea to be rescued.

Here I have my opportunity for action or inaction, comment or criticism. In this situation, I abide by a simple rule.

I’ll buy them, but only if they are on sale.