Are Grocery Delivery Services Driving Weight Gain Home?

Is it worth the lack of effort?

Posted Oct 15, 2013

A supermarket home-delivery service announced today that it would be able to replenish food almost as soon as their customers finish eating. If you polish off the bag of chocolate chip cookies at 11 pm, or scrape the last of the banana-peanut butter frozen yogurt from the carton, all you have to do is scan the barcode with your smartphone and a new order instantly is sent to your virtual shopping cart. Delivery is the next day....No more ruefully looking at the bag of potato chips containing only a few crumbs and muttering (in the words of a classic advertisement), “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Rather, you can now say,“ I ate the whole thing and guess what? I am getting some more.”

In the old days, maybe ten years ago, running out of food was a nuisance. No more milk to go with the cookies? Chip dip all gone after the Sunday football game? All the peanut butter-stuffed pretzels eaten by your kids? The items were put on a list. They would be replenished only when you had the time, in your busy overscheduled life, to get to the supermarket, find the items on the shelves, stand in the checkout line, get in your car and fight traffic, and maybe bad weather, on the way home. The kids might be warned not to eat all the snacks. Finishing off the frozen yogurt might be halted if the replacement wasn't entering the freezer for a while. And, just maybe, you might be tempted into deciding that you are not going to stock up on junk food snacks during your forthcoming supermarket trip because it would be healthier for all of you to eat fruit and rice crackers rather than nachos and cheese during next scheduled sporting event. An inconvenient health, as it were.

But now with the ability to order or reorder foods instantly, you may not take the time to reflect on the caloric cost of doing so. Out of nachos? Two seconds later, another bag is in your virtual shopping cart. Who wants to count calories?

Restaurants have been delivering meals for decades and most people do not use this service to eat excessively. They order a reasonable amount of food and only from one restaurant. But the solitary overeater may order meals from two or three restaurants each night because of embarrassment of ordering too much food from a single vendor. A massively obese weight-loss client of mine (he weighed over 500 pounds) told me that he would stagger his take-out orders so only one delivery person would show up at a time. “Once, orders from the Chinese restaurant and the pizza chain showed up together. I mumbled something about having guests, but I doubt if I fooled anyone,” he told me.

But restaurants that deliver do not have the same seemingly unlimited supply and variety of foods found in a supermarket. I do not think that Ben and Jerry’s delivers (not yet anyway) and so if you are yearning for a brownie, topped with ice cream, fudge sauce and whipped cream, the supermarket, not the ice cream store, is your most probable source of all of these components. To be sure, if your yearning for this brownie sundae comes about at midnight, you are out of luck. Planning this treat requires putting the ingredients in your virtual shopping cart many hours earlier so it can be delivered to your kitchen. But if you are really desperate for that treat, a taxi may be available to bring it to your door, or you to the late night convenience store for an overpriced indulgence.

Overeating by people already struggling with their weight is usually done in private. Very few obese people will eat massive amounts of food in a social setting. Indeed, some will not even overeat in front of family members, preferring eating in their cars, or when the house is empty or everyone is asleep. Moreover, the fattening “I shouldn’t be eating this,” foods may be concealed to prevent criticism from thinner family members. Thus supermarket delivery services are really perfect enablers of overeating. The foods can be ordered in secret on a smartphone and delivered when no one is at home, and eaten in secret.

Of course, supermarket delivery systems are a blessing for people who cannot get to the supermarket easily or at all. The elderly, or parents with small children, people whose work and travel make supermarket shopping almost impossible to schedule, or those who have to take public transportation to the food market, benefit from home delivery. Those without convenient transportation, parents with young children, the elderly, people recovering from an illness or surgery, or with a bad back, are fortunate to have access to such services. But is it possible that, for some, ordering food may be as addictive as ordering fake diamond rings from a home shopping channel?

Television shopping networks can fill the time of insomniacs, the lonely and those who feel that buying stuff is a substitute for other things missing in their lives. Some, for whom the shopping becomes an addiction, go into debt to pay off their purchases. In a like manner, shopping for food from home may do more than supply foods for nourishment of the body. Contemplating what foods to order, thinking of how they will taste, planning private eating binges and then filling up the virtual shopping cart occupies times that otherwise may feel lonely and isolated. The promise of the food delivery the next day can be viewed as a delivery of pleasure and entertainment. But, alas, only excess calories and their consequences are in that cart.

For some, home food delivery is a prescription for massive overeating. An acquaintance whose mother died from the complications of obesity told me that after she and her siblings left home, her mother, who by then could no longer walk due to her weight, would order food from one of those services. “I think she ate even more because the supplies kept coming. She never had to worry about running out of food,” she told me. “And the food kept her company. It was her only friend.”

Nonetheless, the needs of those who look to food to diminish their emotional pain are very real. And until we find effective ways of reaching out to these people, it is possible that their only recourse will be to wait for the delivery of their supermarket food order to make themselves feel better. Was this what the founders of Peapod expected as a client base, I wonder?