Can diet foods make you fat? Sure can! Just look at what happened in the 1980s, when “fat-free” was the rage and the nation’s obesity rate soared.
The simple fact: Fat-free does not mean calorie-free. Consumers need to be savvy, educated shoppers.
Most foods can fit into a healthy diet. But healthy foods can be just as fattening as “junk foods” – if you eat too much of them.
Calories count. But the most important nutrition fact to scan when choosing a packaged food is the serving size. Make your choice based on servings per package and what’s listed as ingredients.
The Skinny on “Diet Foods”
Juice: Juice is not a diet food… unless you’re on a weight gain diet. It’s one of the quickest ways of getting extra calories. Juice is squeezed from the whole fruit. Meanwhile, the beneficial fiber is often left behind. Regardless of how pure the juice, it contains no inherent properties that will make you healthier or make you lose weight. Peel and eat an orange instead. (See below for a tip about juice.)
Turkey Burgers: When dining out with friends, have you felt good about ordering a turkey burger while the others fill up on steak? You may think you’re eating diet food, but you might have been better off with that lean sirloin. Turkey breast is an ultra-lean protein, but most restaurants don’t serve ground turkey breast. More often, their ground turkey contains skin and dark meat – and as many calories and grams of fat as hamburger meat. A better option is a grilled chicken breast sandwich or grilled fish sandwich… hold the mayo and cheese, please!
Natural Cereals: Eating breakfast is one of the most-important lifestyle habits for successful weight loss and maintenance. BUT… not all breakfast cereals are created equal. Ignore the front of the package and the eye-catching words that may depict the cereal as “natural” or “made with whole grain.” Check instead for calories per serving and the amount of sugar per serving. Be on the lookout for “code words” that can mean added sugar or fat. These include crunchy, frosted, honey or clusters. Compare serving sizes. A one-cup serving of good old Cheerios with a cup of nonfat milk has 193 calories. Meanwhile, a smaller 3/4-cup serving of Mom’s Best Natural Cinnamon Toast Crunch and milk has 216 calories. Added sugar adds calories.
Fat-Free Cookies: Once again, fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free. It doesn’t even mean reduced-calorie. You need to know that fat-free products often contain ingredients, usually sugar, to make up for the texture and flavor lost when the fat is removed. Most fat-free cookies contain as many calories as the original cookie – and that surely does not make them a diet food!
Diet Bread: No matter how you slice it, portion size matters. So-called diet bread is usually the same bread as the original, just sliced thinner. It’s a good diet strategy. “Lite” bread usually refers to the color. What you’re thinking is healthful could just be food coloring or added caramel, molasses or brown sugar. Choose bread made from 100% whole-wheat flour with a minimum of 4 grams of fiber per serving.
Olive Oil: Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat. It has the same calories as butter or any other fat, for that matter, but its chemical composition makes it a healthier choice. All fats contain approximately 9 calories per gram, or about 45 calories in one teaspoon. Include olive oil as a part of a healthy diet, but don’t drizzle on more than you need.
Energy Bars: Protein bars, breakfast bars and cereal bars may be convenient but nutritionally they often more resemble candy bars than a healthy snack or meal replacement. Ignore bars with refined sugar as one of the top listed ingredients (sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or any other syrup). The first ingredient should either be a whole grain or a protein source (whey or soy protein). Avoid bars with any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat in the ingredients.
Lite Beer: The USDA defines low calorie as a food that has no more than 40 calories per serving and both low-carb and “lite” beers have about 90 to 100 calories per serving. A low-carb beer is relatively low in carbohydrates, but calories count.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the following definitions on food labels:
FAT-FREE: The product has less than .5 grams of fat per serving.
LOW-FAT: The product has 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
REDUCED or LESS FAT: The product has at least 25% less fat per serving than the full-fat version.
CALORIE-FREE: The product has less than 5 calories per serving.
LOW-CALORIE: The product has 40 calories or less per serving.
REDUCED or FEWER CALORIES: The product has at least 25% fewer calories per serving than the non-reduced version.
LITE or LIGHT: The product has fewer calories or half the fat of the non-light version; the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food is 50% less than the non-light version; or the food is clearer in color (like light instead of dark corn syrup).
Susan Burke March is Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, who as eDiet's Chief Nutritionist promotes the dietary health and well being of consumers worldwide.