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 dieter's boon. After all, nixing a few extra calories here and there can make the difference between reaching your goal weight or holding steady. Or worse, putting on a few pounds each year.
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.
A 2008 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that smaller snack packages encouraged chronic dieters to eat twice as much as when the snack was offered in a larger package. It's thought that once dieters have eaten to a certain point a "what-the-hell" effect kicks in, willpower is abandoned and people keep on eating.
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.
Diet fix: Eat 100 calories' worth of real food: three dried apricots + 3 walnut halves, 1/3 cup of plain yogurt + 1/2 cup berries, 15 grapes + half an ounce of cheese, or a 12-ounce (a "tall" at Starbucks) skim-milk latte.
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 to prevent spreading too many calories on your toast. Even better, choose a "natural" peanut butter made only with crushed nuts and perhaps a bit of salt.
If you read my column, you know that 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.
A 2014 study published in Nature demonstrated the ability of saccharin, sucralose and aspartame to disrupt the balance of gut bacteria in mice and people, an effect that could lead to obesity and glucose intolerance.
Diet fix: 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.
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.
Kraft Fat Free Italian dressing delivers a mere five calories per tablespoon (it's mostly water, remember). The company's full fat Zesty Italian dressing, on the other hand, has 25 calories a tablespoon – not a heck of a lot more.
I know what you're thinking. Who uses only a tablespoon? Sure, the calorie savings will add up as portion-size increases. Even so, in my experience people tend to use full-fat foods more judiciously than those labelled fat- or calorie-free.
A "lighter" tasting salad could also persuade you to add more fat-reduced dressing.
Diet fix: 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.
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.
Diet fix: 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.
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.
Diet fix: 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 , a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.