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If you’re a snacker who’s keeping tabs on the bathroom scale, calorie-controlled snack packs and light and fat-free foods might seem like a boon. After all, nixing a few extra calories here and there can make the difference between reaching your goal weight or holding steady.

Not all diet foods are helpful, though. Some might actually prompt you to overeat and others can shortchange your diet of essential nutrients, not to mention deliver potentially risky ingredients.

And, despite the label claims – light, fat-reduced, sugar-free – you may not be saving as many calories as you think.

The following foods don't deserve a regular place in your diet (it's not an all-inclusive list), whether you're trying to slim down or not. Here's why, plus better-for-you stand-ins.

100-calorie snack packs

The built-in portion control of miniature packages of cookies, chips and chocolate helps prevent mindless munching to the bottom of the bag. That's as long as you stop at one pack which, research suggests, doesn't always happen.

On the nutrition front, these highly processed snacks don't offer much beyond white flour, sugar and, well, 100 calories. They also lack appetite-suppressing nutrients such as fibre, protein and healthy fats.

Eat this instead: Eat 100 calories’ worth of real food: Three dried apricots and 3 walnut halves; 1/3 cup of plain yogurt and 1/2 cup of berries or 15 grapes and half an ounce of cheese.

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Fat-reduced peanut butter isn’t unhealthy, but what’s the point?Meliha Gojak/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Light peanut butter

Fat-reduced peanut butter isn’t unhealthy, but what’s the point? Per tablespoon, you’re saving only 10 calories and two grams of fat (80 calories versus 90 calories for Kraft’s fat-reduced and regular peanut butters). Big deal.

Plus, peanut butter provides heart-healthy fat, half of it from monounsaturated fat, the type that's thought to help improve blood vessel function and benefit blood-sugar control.

Diet fix: Stick with regular peanut butter and practice portion control. Even better, choose a natural peanut butter made only with crushed nuts and perhaps a bit of salt.

Diet pop

I’m not a fan of artificially sweetened drinks. While studies haven’t shown a causal link, some research has linked habitual diet-drink consumption to weight gain over time, even after accounting for factors such as diet and exercise.

It's thought that by providing a sweet taste without calories, artificial sweeteners may impair the body's ability to gauge calorie intake, causing us to consume excess calories later on.

Eat this instead: Swap diet soft drinks for naturally calorie-free water, sparkling or still. To infuse flavour, add a splash of pure fruit juice or a slice of citrus fruit.

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The main purpose of salad dressing is fat.VeselovaElena/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Fat-free salad dressing

To me, the main purpose of salad dressing is fat. Oil – be it olive, grapeseed, sunflower, canola or walnut – adds flavour, texture and nutrients such as vitamin E and alpha linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat) to salads. It also helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and beneficial antioxidants from greens and other vegetables.

What's more, using fat-free salad dressing, made mainly from water plus emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives and sometimes added sugar, may not be trimming a substantial number of calories from your meal.

A “lighter” tasting salad could persuade you to add more fat-reduced dressing.

Eat this instead: If you buy commercial salad dressing, go for the full-fat version (ditto for mayonnaise) and drizzle your salad with a measured two tablespoons. My preference: dressings made with olive or canola oil instead of soybean oil, an inexpensive oil high in omega-6 fatty acids that’s widespread in processed foods. If you’re cutting back on salt, look for a product with less than 200 milligrams a serving.

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If you crave cheese, opt for real cheese.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Fat-free cheese slices

A 20-gram slice of fat-free processed cheese serves up a measly 25 calories. But along with your so-called cheese (flavourless, in my opinion), you're also getting water, corn starch, salt, binders, natural and artificial flavours, colouring and preservatives.

Eat this instead: If you crave cheese, opt for real cheese, be it cheddar, Swiss or Parmesan. Invest in a cheese plane which allows you to slice cheese in very thin slices.

Two thin slices of aged cheddar cheese (15 grams, I weighed it) adds satisfying flavour to sandwiches and burgers for only 55 calories and 2.8 grams of saturated fat.

The additional 30 calories isn't going to break your diet.

Rice cakes

Two puffed rice cakes serve up 70 calories – about the same as a small (30 gram) slice of 100-per-cent whole-grain bread – but not much else. No fibre and negligible vitamins and minerals, despite being made from brown rice. They're also high on the glycemic index scale, meaning when eaten by themselves they spike your blood sugar and insulin, which can lead to premature hunger.

Eat this instead: Trade rice cakes for nutrient- and fibre-rich snacks such as 20 almonds (equivalent of 140 calories, or four rice cakes) or raw vegetables dipped in a few tablespoons of hummus. If you love rice cakes, pair two with a tablespoon of (full fat) nut butter or thinly sliced (real) cheese.

Leslie Beck is a registered dietitian.

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