Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Problem with Diet Foods

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I eat diet products. I drink Diet Coke, inhale low-fat granola bars, and am not ashamed to love No Pudge brownies as if they were my own mother. Moreover, I challenge anyone who insists that their yogurt tastes better than Weight Watchers’ Amaretto Cheesecake brand to an all-out dairy war. (Note: I will win.)

Like most people who’re even slightly concerned about the magnitude of their bum, diet products are a part of my everyday life. I buy them regularly because they let me think that I care about what I eat, without actually having to care about what I eat. And in a world of 770-calorie Strawberry Frappuccinos and Deep-fried Cheesecake, doesn’t that borderline awareness count for something?

As it turns out, maybe not.

A flood of recent studies and articles claim that many diet foods may not be as beneficial as they initially seemed. While they can keep calorie counts down, there’s apparently a link between consumption of certain products and the tendency to be overweight. Some foods have even been found to flat-out promote obesity in animals, as well as high cholesterol and other exciting conditions.

I don’t mean to condemn diet products altogether, but these findings definitely raise some questions: like what, exactly are the problems with them? How do we address those issues? And in the long run, does it even matter? Let’s explore.


Diet products may cause overeating. This occurs in two ways. The first happens when an individual gorges on a diet food, since she believes it won’t hurt her as much as the full-fat version. (There’s even a name for it: “the SnackWell Syndrome.”) The second cause of overeating, according to Time Magazine’s Alice Park, is that “people are preprogrammed to anticipate sugary, high-calorie fulfillment when drinking a soda or noshing on a sweet-tasting snack. So, the diet versions of these foods may leave them unsatisfied, driving them to eat more to make up the difference.” In other words, you’ve initially tricked your brain into less calories, but your body won’t stand for it later.

Diet products might help people develop tastes for full-fat versions of the same food. One study suggests that this might be especially true of children. Says Sarah Kliff of Newsweek: “when we eat diet foods at a young age we overeat similar-tasting foods later in life, suggesting that low-cal foods disrupt the body's ability to recognize how many calories an item contains.” Think about it: if you’ve gobbled fat-free hot dogs your whole childhood, doesn’t it make sense that you’d wolf down the full-fat varieties as an adult?

Diet products can cost more. If you’ve ever priced shredded cheese against lower-fat versions of the same brand, this may ring particularly true. It may only be a $0.10 or $0.20 difference, but they add up over time. The most egregious example of this trend, however, is the rise of the 100-Calorie packet. You know, those baseball-sized bags of wafers purchased for $3.99 when three cookies would cost a fraction of the price? According to Morgan Stanley food industry tracker David Adelman, “The irony is, if you take Wheat Thins or Goldfish, buy a large-size box, count out the items and put them in a Ziploc bag, you’d have essentially the same product.” [Peters, NY Times.]

Diet products contain more artificial flavors and preservatives. This is more my own observation than the research (so please take it with a grain of salt), but diet foods seem to have lots more chemicals than their regular counterparts. Compare the ingredients of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips (Potatoes, Corn and/or Cottonseed Oil And Salt) with those of Lay’s Light Original Fat Free Potato Chips (Potatoes, Olestra, Salt, Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Tocopherols, Vitamin K, And Vitamin D). Though I’m sure an abundance of cottonseed oil isn’t spectacular for the heart, isn’t olestra the stuff that “may cause anal leakage”? (Mmm … anal leakage.) Yikes.


Shop smart. Nowadays, it’s pretty commonly accepted that the prices of nutritionally sound eats are too high. Yet, with a little planning and some strategic shopping, whole foods are as affordable as a pack of low-fat Twinkies (and they’ll satiate longer, too). Making a plan, drawing up a list, shopping the perimeter, clipping coupons, stockpiling, and ESPECIALLY paying attention to circulars are just some of the brainy strategies available to anyone with healthy ambitions.

Read nutrition labels. If you do buy a processed diet product (and who doesn’t?), take the time to scan the Nutrition Facts and ask some questions: what’s the saturated fat content? How many calories are in a serving? In what order are the ingredients listed? Are you comfortable with all the additives? Once there’s a better understanding of what goes into a product, your perspective on it might change. For help with decoding, here’s the FDA’s guide to food labels.

Eat real food. Straight up, it’s better for you, and there’s an easy guideline to separating the real from the processed: “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” (Thanks, Michael Pollan [yet again]!)

Cook. Preparing meals at home instills healthy habits, encourages quality time with family, and allows eaters to know exactly what’s going into their dinner. It de-emphasizes diet products and promotes a reliance on whole foods, as well.

Limit portions. Admittedly, I haven’t read French Women Don’t Get Fat, but friends and reviewers sum it up thusly: Gallic chicks eat almost whatever they want, but know when to say when. Conversely, we Americans aren’t raised to savor taste; we gulp our food down, and then look for more. That means one thing: dude, we need to get on the ball. Reasonable quantities are essential to both a balanced lifestyle and weaning ourselves off diet products, and the American Diabetes Association and Mayo Clinic have more.

Drink water. In almost every article I read, diet soda was cited as a main villain in the product studies. Water is free, abundant, crazy-healthy, and can actually be very tasty.


While I hardly think diet victuals are the devil, this research has helped convince me of something: we gotta try to eat right. That means no (or fewer) shortcuts. That means fruits and vegetables, rice and grains, and lean meats and fish (environmentally sustainable fish, of course). It means cooking and keeping a careful eye on what’s piling up in the pantry. It means indulging intelligently and avoiding chemical-laden science projects that attempt to pass themselves off as actual edibles.

Alas, nobody’s perfect, and being on-point all the time is exhausting. But, if once - just once - I can sub an orange in for that 90-calorie pencil-sized granola bar, at least it's a step in the right direction.


Can Sugar Substitutes Make You Fat? by Alice Park (Time, 2/08)
Diet Soda No Better for You Than Regular by Marisa McClellan (Slashfood, 7/07)
Do Diet Foods Lead to Weight Gain? by Alice Park (Time, 8/07)
Four Ways Not to Lose Weight by Sarah Kliff (Newsweek, 10/07)
The Oreo, Obesity, and Us by Delroy Alexander (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/05)
Skip the Diet Soda by Lucy Danzinger (SELF, 3/08)
Snack food companies are placing bigger bets on smaller packages by Jeremy W. Peters (New York Times, 7/07)

(Photos courtesy of Things, ecandy, and DK Images.)

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dialectically_yours said...

There are problems trusting your diet to ANY corporation: they are out to produce their goods as cheaply as possible. That means more preservatives, more cheap ingredients, more salt and corn syrup.

With allergies, the problem is worse. I have to weigh ANY 'diet food' against the allergies, salt content, cholesterol, et cetera. I can almost guarantee that there are NO processed foods that manage all of my criteria. Worse, MOST of the 'diet' and 'low cholesterol' stuff is across-the-board contaminated with things I am allergic to.

My soution involves more NATURAL foods, quite literally. Instead of a small handful of tortilla chips, I can eat a large bowl of salsa with either zucchini strips or other veggie strips and consume the same number of calories with MUCH less salt and fat.

To make things 'fast food easy' and to control portion sizes a bit more, I sit down and portion out snacks into the plastic snack bags. It's a good visual activity to SHOW someone how quickly those calories have stacked up.

Let's be honest: will *two* measly Oreos satisfy your craving for sweets? How many slices of peaches, frozen into a nearly sugarless sherbet equal the hundred-fifty calories of the Oreos? Uh... Something like a cup, using canned fruit in light syrup, but I'd have to look up the nutritional information again.

Jaime said...

It's interesting that there's a study showing that ingesting diet foods *causes* overweightness. I'd always heard about the "drinking Diet Coke makes you fat!" studies and thought, "maybe heavy people are drinking Diet Coke *because* they're heavy, not vice versa." Causality is so dodgy in headline reporting. This is the first I've heard of anything concrete. (In NYC I feel like every skinny girl is a Diet Coke addict, and it's not making them fat, but I don't think they eat anything else.)

The point about 100 calorie packs is really good. First of all, is one pack satisfying to *anyone*? Second, they're ridiculously expensive, compared to a box of normal crackers and some Ziploc bags. To what diatetically_yours said, yeah, peach sorbet is better than Oreos, but if I'm in the mood for Oreos, peach sorbet hardly cuts it. (Neither does a wee bag of chocolate wafers, though, either.)

I think moving away from processed foods is so helpful/important. Eating diet food doesn't feel like eating real food, and who wants to live a life of that? 90% of the time, I'm much happier eating a mango and a small piece of dark chocolate than 2 100-calorie packs of Oreo wafers. Of course, the other 10% I'm clutching a bag of BBQ Fritos like my life depends on it, so who am I to say.

Kris said...

You guys both make the non-processed point way better than I did. And I really believe that natural foods are the way to go, though it's been tough weaning myself off the diet products. If only they weren't so convenient...

Annie K. Nodes said...

One thing I've noticed lately...I rarely see anyone who's thin eating Tasty D-Lite.

Elaine said...

I'd always heard about the "drinking Diet Coke makes you fat!" studies and thought, "maybe heavy people are drinking Diet Coke *because* they're heavy, not vice versa."

The studies that really shocked me all involved animals, who obviously didn't know they were drinking diet "soda." The causality piece is obviously more convoluted in humans. :)

And I know ALL about the SnackWell Syndrome. I think that's part of how I gained weight a number of years back.

BTW, in the last year I've lost 50+ pounds, mostly by reducing portion sizes & taking up bike commuting.

Anonymous said...

Haha I said the same thing about olestra when a friend told me to try the fat free chips, but apparently its olean which causes anal leakage... of course who knows what wonderful things olestra causes...

Jaime said...

Anon, Olean is actually the brand name of Olestra - same fake fat, same anal leakage.

Kelly said...

Olean is Procter & Gamble's brand name for olestra - it's actually the same product.

On Snackwell's syndrome: in high school, I used to take a Snackwell's brownie, slice it in half lengthwise, and fill it with peanut butter. This was my favorite side dish for a while.

The more I pay attention to nutrition and to my eating habits, the more I'm convinced that eating as little processed food as possible - diet or regular - is the way to go. If I eat, say, a Lean Cuisine for lunch, I'm hungry again almost before I'm done eating. The same calories in homemade beans and rice fill me up all afternoon!

Sally Parrott Ashbrook said...

It's taken my taste buds a couple of years to adjust to a whole-foods, no-fake-sugar diet, but honestly, now that they have adjusted, a much smaller portion of the sweet stuff (the real sweet stuff), homemade or from a bakery, is far, far more satisfying than a larger portion of diet foods is. And I have the ability now (that I previously did not possess at ALL) to tell that some foods are actually too sweet to enjoy much of.

Daniel Koontz said...

Hi Kris, great article.

What worked for us was this: instead of buying diet foods, we switched most of our weekly meals to vegetarian. Vegetarian cuisine is typically higher in fiber, more nutritious, less energy-dense and best of all, cheaper. We still eat meat, but only on occasion.

I also liked this point in particular:

"I buy [diet products] regularly because they let me think that I care about what I eat, without actually having to care about what I eat."

This is a great insight. Sometimes it can be deceivingly easy to confuse action with results.

Casual Kitchen

Dani said...

Great post! Frankly you couldn't pay me to eat "diet" foods. Just eat real unprocessed food and you can't go wrong. Besides it's delicious. To cure sweet cravings, go cold turkey on sugar and use an unprocessed equivalent like muscovado or rapadura. They're not addictive and you'll find that in no time at all the sweet cravings have gone.

Anonymous said...

The worst chemical in the diet products is the artificial sweetener. Read "Sweet Deception" by Dr. Mercol, or check his website for dozens of stories of headaches, stomach-aches, and even hospitalizations caused by Splenda and Nutrasweet. Splenda [named sucralose so you will think it's a natural sugar when you see it on a label]is a chorinated sugar. All its relatives are poisonous, including DDT and Agent Orange. It was developed whlie trying to create new pesticides. In the body some of it breaks down into chlorine and sugar. And aspartame,
AKA Nutasweet, is an excito-toxin like MSG, damaging to brain cells Read Dr. Blaylock. These are often added to non diet products. Pepperidge Farm swirl bread has natural sugar. But whole wheat swirl bread has some sucralose.
Read the labels closely. MSG is also diguised as many natural sounding additives. Why are diet sodas bad for you? Not because they
trick your body, but because they
contain toxic chemicals. All lot of childrens' foods have them.
Propel Water promotes itself as healthy. Read the label. Donald Rumsfeld pushed through approval of aspartame after it was denied for 15 years.Search for yourself.

Gaming Girl said...

This is an excellent round up. Thanks for posting it and doing the research. I'd heard about the caloric taste issue leading to eating more in passing, but I hadn't seen any evaluative articles.

I've never gotten into the diet foods because I have an immediate allergic reaction to sucrolose, aspertame, and well, pretty much any and all fake sugars.

That being said, losing weight has always been a challenge because I can't use the "easy" fixes. "Replace your soda with diet soda." and "Stop cooking in bacon fat." Um... yeah, I don't cook in bacon fat and the diet soda makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

You are so right -- the key is to BE INFORMED.

There is too much misinformation, and too many consumers simply walk into a store, read a label, and think they know what food to eat. Get educated!

There's a great (and surprisingly unbiased) resource list over at the Dietary Supplement Information Bureau. It's worth checking out, and a better reference I've found than Wikipedia

foods to lower cholesterol said...

I agree diet products can cost more. I have tried dieting but It cost me a lot.

spotter said...

I'm really late on the commenting, but amen to all of it. There was an interesting article in the NYT this week about the "nutritional halo" surrounding certain diet foods that made people underestimate the amount of calories in them. The Snackwell Syndrome continues.

Oh, I fell prey to it, too. Then I tried subbing in full-fat versions, thinking it would be more satisfying and I'd eat less. Nope. I gained 70 lbs. in ten years instead. But you know...halo and all, most of the processed diet stuff doesn't even taste that good. Didn't stop me from inhaling it, however.

After much battling, I figured out what foods were problematic and didn't keep them in the house anymore (I'm guessing this would be harder if I had a significant other or children). What's left are fruit, veg, grains, legumes, lean protein (sometimes meat or fish, mostly tofu), tea, coffee, milk and water. Bread's mostly out; so are cheese and sugar. (That "mostly" gives me enough wiggle room to be sensible without driving myself crazy.)

I read nutritional labels like a fiend, and I measure a lot, since my idea of a cup of cereal and an actual cup of cereal often differ radically. And I try to make real food from sites like this one. :) Thanks!