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.)