What Are “Diet Foods” Anyway?

By Dr. Rick Tague

The marketplace is full of seemingly “healthy” food options for those trying to watch their weight and health.  But what do these products really offer us, if anything?

Don’t be deceived by terms such as reduced calorie, reduced fat, low fat, light, lite, diet, fat-free, or low-calorie.  These terms may or may not have significance in terms of your actual health.

I took my teenage children to the grand opening of a new frozen yogurt business in Topeka this summer.  I was pleased that they had the option of having just berries, walnuts, almonds, etc.  My 16 year old, who is likewise health conscious, was pleased to see that they had “fat-free” options on their yogurt.  Jamie was feeling good that she could choose a “healthier” option as well.

This led to a nutrition lesson, which my children will tell you is a common occurrence when we are eating out!  You see, “fat-free” is one of the most misleading titles of food on the market.  In the 1970’s, there was a public health initiative to get everyone to eat “low fat” to avoid heart disease.  As a result, fats in foods (which can be healthy or unhealthy), were replaced with sugars.  And fat free, became, in reality, high sugar!

So, my nutrition lesson included a couple of points.  First, there is an assumption that low fat or “fat-free” is a good thing.  The truth is that lowering overall fat intake as a primary goal has never been shown to give health benefits.  It does not result in either weight loss or lower risk of heart disease.

The second point is that “fat-free”, when applied to sweet or snack items, can be interpreted as “high carbohydrate” or “high sugar”.  I’ve learned to just say “high sugar” whenever I see those fat-free labels, then I try to find a nutrition label to read, and I’ve never been wrong.

Modern research has confirmed that if you can replace carbohydrates with fats, even “saturated” fats, there is no harm done.  So, don’t look for “fat-free” or “low fat” foods.  Consider nutrient content and your personal nutrition goals.  Some fat in the diet is essential.

Similarly, “lite” products may also still have excessive amounts of harmful sugars and harmful fats, even if calories have been slightly reduced.

When choosing food options, be proactive in your approach.  I intentionally choose 2 fruits per day, several vegetable servings per day, 4-5 of my favorite meal replacements (Chocolate RTD Shakes, Cinnamon Treats, Comfort Bars, and our Cream of Vegetable Soup are common items for me), 3-4 servings of lean protein, and a few other categories like monounsaturated fats from avocados and olives are typical.
The point is to plan in advance, be assertive, be proactive, be intentional.  And if you take your teens to a yogurt shop, choose one where you can get the berries and nuts, which are part of my daily maintenance plan anyway…

Rick Tague, M.D., M.P.H. & T.M. is a nutrition & weight loss specialist and the Founder & Medical Director of the Center for Nutrition and Preventive Medicine, P.A.

Dr. Tague is an Alpha Omega Alpha honors graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Tulane. Dr. Tague is board certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Family Medicine. His medical practice has focused on optimum health, nutrition, and weight loss since 1996.

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