Are diet foods really better for us?

diet breakfast bars with a tape measure around them

Go in to any supermarket and you will find shelves, freezer and chiller cabinets full of diet food, but take the time to have a closer look at the packaging.

diet bars with tape measure around the middle

Foods that are labelled ‘low fat’ are often higher in sugar so you may be reducing your fat content but potentially increasing your sugar content. That’s another can of worms you could be opening.

For instance, breakfast is considered the most important meal of the day. You may think you are doing the right thing by having a bowl of cereal with skimmed milk. But read the labels first.

Consider Kellogg’s Special K Clusters Honey. At 5% fat they contain less than half the fat of the average leading cluster cereals – so says the packaging. But they also contain 17g (over four teaspoons) of sugar in a 45g serving. Compare that with Kellogg’s Branflakes, which contain only 4.2g (just over one teaspoon) of sugar and 1g of fat per serving.

Something else to consider is the serving size that they quote. Most of us eat a larger serving than the stated 35-45g so we are, in effect, eating more sugar and consuming more calories

But what about a ‘healthy’ snack?

Starbucks skinny blueberry muffin still has 24g (six teaspoons) of sugar and 312 calories.

Belvita milk and cereal biscuits are a handy choice when you’re in rush. The biscuits are in cellophane packs and come in fours. The nutritional information on the packet is per biscuit but the suggested serving size is four biscuits. A bit of maths is therefore needed to work out how much a serving adds up to: 220 calories, 7.2g of fat and 10g (2½ teaspoons) of sugar.

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A fruit smoothie bought on the way to work can have over 50g (12½ teaspoons) of sugar.

If you have the time, try some of these really good healthy and low-fat breakfast choices:

  • Porridge (made with half milk and water) served with half a mashed banana (280 calories and 14g or 3½ teaspoons of sugar)
  • A poached egg on wholemeal toast (154 calories, 1.6g sugar and 5g of fat)
  • A homemade muesli (approx. 160 calories, 7g sugar and 3g of fat).

These options all have a good mix of wholegrain carbohydrates, fibre and protein, helping you to feel fuller for longer.

Mature woman female inspecting testing butter food label with magnifying glass.The lesson here, I think, is to read the labels.  Cereals are still a good breakfast option as they are often fortified with vitamins and minerals. Plus it’s a good way to add calcium by serving with skimmed/non dairy milk, and many are high in fibre and have a low GI (Glycemic Index) so their energy will be released slowly keeping you fuller for longer.

Is low fat really the better option?

Lunchtime also presents the healthy eater with a range of choices. If sandwiches are your thing then read the label before you buy; you may be getting more than you thought.

A Pret Chicken and Avocado sandwich has 23g of fat, 4g (one teaspoon) of sugar and 485 calories. Compare that with a Starbucks Char Sui Chicken sandwich containing 8.4g of fat and 4.7g (over one teaspoon) of sugar and 360 calories.

A sandwich from a ‘healthy’ range like Tesco’s Chicken and Pesto contains 5g fat, 5.8g (nearly two teaspoons) of sugar and 281 calories. But if you buy Tesco’s Simple Roast Chicken and Salad with no mayo sandwich, your sugar consumption reduces to 2.4g or ½ a teaspoon.

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Also be aware that if something says light, it doesn’t always mean it’s low in calories. However it does have to have 30% less calories than the standard equivalent product. For instance an egg mayo sandwich ‘light’ has to have 30% fewer calories than the standard egg mayo, which can have as much as 16g of fat. This means a ‘light’ version could still have nearly 11g of fat.

A low fat or 0% fat yoghurt sounds like the perfect afternoon snack, but approach with caution. Tesco’s low fat everyday value fruit yoghurts have 15.4g (nearly four teaspoons) of sugar per 125g pot. But Arla’s 150g pot of apple yoghurt has only 2½ teaspoons of the white stuff.

For your evening meal you may decide on a low-calorie ready meal. All the hard work has been done for you and you assume you are eating something healthy, but that may not be the case.

Weight Watchers Sweet & Sour Chicken has 312 calories and 19g (nearly five teaspoons) of sugar. A non-diet version by Tesco’s has 292 calories and 10.7g (less than three teaspoons) of sugar.

Whether it’s a full meal of just a snack, if you are watching your weight diet foods may not automatically be the healthier option. It’s time to get used to reading the labels…

About Susan Hart

I am a Nottingham-based nutritional coach, advising clients about the benefits of healthy eating. This is delivered on an individual, group or organisational wide basis. For clients wishing to stay healthy and possibly lose weight I offer vegan and vegetarian cookery classes. I also deliver wellbeing workshops at Maggie’s Cancer Support Centre at the City Hospital in Nottingham. As a vegetarian chef I also write a monthly restaurant review for the Nottingham Post, and regularly write for the West Bridgford Wire. I just love talking about and eating food!