An unlikely road for Eat This Not That’s Matt Goulding

As he stood next to a stack of books and a table full of killer food Sunday afternoon at the Barnes & Noble across from Cary Towne Center, the icons of Matt Goulding’s life were within 50 yards. Across Maynard Street was Cary High School, where Goulding graduated in 1999; at the far end of the parking lot was Macaroni Grill where he rose from busboy to the chain restaurant’s chief antagonist (and more recently, a key ally). And the books next to him represented the franchise created by him and David Zinczenko and that has succeeded far beyond their — or anyone’s — dreams.

Goulding and Zinczenko are the writers of the wildly popular “Eat This Not That” series of dietary guides that succinctly and graphically help consumers chose between a Jimmy Dean Sausage, Egg and Cheese Croissant (430 calories, 740 milligrams of sodium, 29 grams of fat and 3.5 grams of transfat) and Jimmy Dean D-Lights Muffin made with Whole Grain, Turkey Sausage, Egg White & Cheese (260 calories, 840 mg sodium, 7 g of fat, 0 g of transfat). Goulding was in town (he splits his time between the office in Manhattan and his retreat on a small lake near Sanford) to catch up with friends and family, and to promote his work educating Americans on what to eat and what not to eat. It’s a vocation he — or those who know him — didn’t see coming when he left Cary High in 1999.

“No one voted me Most Likely to be a Nutritionist,” says Goulding.

He was, however, interested in food. He got his introduction to the big food industry working part-time at Macaroni Grill while at Cary High, thought he might like to be a cook, wrote a cookbook for guys about how to use the kitchen to get girls (it wasn’t published), wound up working as food and nutrition editor for Men’s Health magazine. One day at Men’s Health, the phone rang. It was a senior editor with Rodale, publisher of Men’s Health.

“He said, ‘How would you like to write a book?’” Initially, the notion sounded appealing. But as the “Eat This Not That” concept was explained, he started having doubts. “I’m not so sure this is right for me,” he told friends, who wisely counseled him that you don’t say no to such an offer (he’d already committed the faux pas of asking for the weekend to think it over). He said yes.

Expectations for the first “Eat This, Not That” were modest. “Our first press run was 20,000,” says Goulding. Those went surprisingly fast, he recalls. “Our second was 500,000.” The franchise quickly expanded to include “Cook This Not That,” “Eat This Not That For Kids,” a restaurant version and a special weight-loss version. In May, a beverage version is scheduled to be in book stores. To date, more than 5 million books have been sold in the series, there’s an iPhone app and ETNT is on Twitter.

Goulding talked about the difficulties of getting accurate nutritional analyses (some companies fudge their numbers), about the not-always-complimentary mail he and Zinczenko get (many from people defending their inalienable right to eat a Bloomin’ Onion), about the companies that take offense to having their Bloomin’ Onions portrayed in unflattering terms. Nothing surprising there.

What was surprising, was that some of ETNT’s biggest enemies have come to embrace the concept. His former employer across the parking lot, for instance.

“One day we got a call from Brad Blum, the new CEO at Macaroni Grill,” Goulding began. Macaroni Grill at the time was judged by “Eat This Not That” to be among the unhealthiest restaurants in the nation. With a wry grin, Goulding added, “He wondered if we would like to go to lunch.” Big laugh.

Turned out that Blum wanted to revisit Macaroni Grill’s menu,  introducing healthier options more true to Italian-Mediterranean cuisine. They had lunch with Blum and wound up consulting with the restaurant on its new menu. The Eat This Not That team is currently consulting with another unlikely convert: Hardees/Carl Jr.’s. The fast-food provider has actively celebrated its Thickburger line (two-third-pound Double Thickburger: 1,230 calories, 2,090 milligrams of sodium, 90 grams of fat) through TV ads showing grease dribbling down the chins of rabid consumers.

Not everyone has seen the light. On the table next to him, Goulding had brought examples of five offending restaurant foods, including ETNT’s top artery clogger, Outback’s Aussie Cheese Fries. Dubbed by “Eat This Not That” as The Worst Food in America, the appetizer tops the nutritional charts at 2,900 calories, 182 grams of fat, 240 grams of carbs. (Confession: When he got off work at Macaroni Grill, Goulding says he and his fellow busboy buds would get together and have Aussie Fries and “fruit juice”.)

Most of Sunday’s crowd was familiar with Goulding’s work. Still, such revelations drew gasps from most of the 75 or so assembled. Most, not all.

In the audience was Nick Meglin, a longtime editor at Mad magazine who retired to Durham in 2004.

“When you’re done,” asked Meglin, “can we eat the Aussie Cheese Fries?”

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