Eating “light” and “diet” foods all day, every day, could make you fall short on nutrition and pack on poundsBy: Greg Presto
They promise to help you control portions, lower your fat intake, slim your waist, and still allow you to eat three square meals a day. But in reality, the only thing “square” about many diet foods is the box.Foods not to ditch when you diet
The companies that market these foods are trying to make money, not make you healthier, happier, or thinner. And what they use to make foods low-cal or low-fat can endanger your heart, spike your blood sugar, or make you even hungrier.
We asked three experts to examine a day's worth of these options and provide swaps or add-ons to take them from "healthy" to healthy.
The Culprit: Dannon "Light & Fit" Yogurt
The Problem: At 80 calories, this cup of yogurt isn't enough for a meal, yet many dieters treat it as breakfast. What's worse: The "light" part—removing the fat from the yogurt—actually makes it less satiating, so you’re bound to be starving an hour after eating.
What's in fat's place? Sugar. While this cup packs zero fat and only 5 grams of filling protein, it's got 16 grams of carbs, 11 of which are sugar.
"If you look at the ingredients on this, they add cornstarch—they're doing that for texture, because they took the fat out," says Valerie Berkowitz, RD, director of nutrition at the Center for Balanced Health. "With the fat in there, it's the milk product that it should be. The more we taint the food supply, the more unhealthy it is."
The Solution: Berkowitz suggests part-skim or full-fat Greek yogurt—this protein-rich alternative has a few more calories, but it's more balanced nutritionally, providing the energy you need throughout the day. "You could even add a cottage cheese to it, and there's even more protein, which means more balance," Berkowitz says.
The Culprit: Carnation Instant Breakfast
The Problem: Sugar. And lots of it.
"More than 50 percent of the calories are coming from sugar," says Sandra Carpenter, RD, Senior Program Manager for Weight Management and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. This super-sweet beverage can actually make you hungrier. "This can raise your blood sugar, but then immediately, the cells take that sugar out of your bloodstream, which sends a signal to your brain that you need to eat."
The Solution: Eat something that's just as quick, but solid and more balanced. "You'll get similar calories from a slice of bread, a tablespoon of peanut butter, and a glass of milk," says Berkowitz. This quick meal provides a mix of fat, protein, and carbs as quick as mixing the instant drink, without the sugar crash.
The Culprit: Starbucks Strawberry Banana Vivanno Smoothie
The Problem: Sure, it's sugary. But that's easy to fix, says Berkowitz. Remove the strawberry flavor. "The rest of the ingredients are a whole banana, protein powder, milk, and ice," she says. "Not bad."
In fact, says Sue Shapses, PhD, RD, director of the New Jersey Obesity Group and professor of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University, the liquid meal may actually satiate you sooner. "It goes down faster, but it gets to your brain quicker," she says. "It's a fairly healthy, all-around mini-meal."
So what's the trouble? For some dieters, a liquid meal won't cut it. "From a calorie perspective, these aren't so bad, but many people need to chew to feel satisfied," says Carpenter. So even though a liquid meal—or meal replacement—can provide the energy you need, the desire to snack may pop up just so you can pop something in your mouth.
The Solution: Add something with lots of crunch and a little fiber, says Carpenter—an apple or other piece of fruit, or some granola sprinkled into the smoothie.
The Culprit: The many, varied 100-calorie packs for snacking.
The Problem: They may make you eat more. A study from Arizona State University found that dieters may eat more calories if food is presented in smaller packages or containers. So if you've got more than one 100-calorie pack sitting around, your snack may turn into a 400-, 500-, or 600-calorie pack.
The Solution: These packs are designed to control portions. So if you're going to keep them as snacks at your desk, keep just one or two to control mindless munching. If they're for an after-work nosh, go for a mix of protein, carbs, and fats to fill yourself faster: Pair the pack with a string cheese, apple, yogurt, or celery with peanut butter.
The Culprit: Lean Cuisine Chicken Mediterranean
The Problem: Too few calories—just 240—too much salt, and not enough chicken.
"There's 19 grams of protein—that might mean two, three ounces of chicken," says Berkowitz. You could—and should—have more for your meal, she says. Even if you ate 6 meals of this many calories, you'd still have fewer than 1,500 calories for the day—fewer than many diets recommend as their floor for fuel.
The Solution: Create a satisfying meal. "I'd suggest adding a salad and more chicken," Berkowitz says. For a solid meal, she says, bump the poultry portion up to 6 to 8 ounces.
The Culprit: Progresso 99% Fat Free Chicken Noodle Soup
The Problem: Salt! In just 180 calories (not many for a meal), this can provides 670 mg of sodium. That's more than a quarter of your day's allotment—almost half if you're at risk for heart disease or stroke. "Here's the thing: That's not so bad if you're not eating other heavily-salted foods throughout the day," says Berkowitz. "But if you eat a can of a soup with something like a Lean Cuisine [the Chicken Mediterranean has 590 mg], there's trouble."
The Solution: If you're supplementing the soup—and you should—choose a low-sodium add-on, like fruit, some vegetables, a lightly-dressed salad, or a glass of milk. You can also cut the salt you consume from the soup, Berkowitz says. "If you add some water, you'll increase the volume of the soup. Eat what's inside, and leave some of the broth—salt with it—behind."
The Culprit: Subway 6-Inch Turkey Breast Sandwich
The Problem: Salt again, sure—this sandwich has 910 mg, more than the soup. But the size may be the real issue.
"No one eats a six-inch sub," says Berkowitz. It may be psychological, but Americans, especially men, don't feel like it's a complete meal—meaning you'll eat more with the meal or later in the day.
The Solution: Pair it up, Berkowitz says. Have some fruit and a big salad. Or swap it for a larger option that may be lower in calories and sodium. "Lots of grocery stores cook their own meats for sandwiches," she says. "Have it on whole grain bread, and that could be a better, more satisfying option."
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