Nonfat, sugar-free, zero calories. You may think that diet foods with these labels are shortcuts to slimming down, but this isn’t always the case. Just like diet drinks, diet foods often do you more harm than good. We spoke with Washington, D.C.-based nutritionist JJ Smith, author of Lose Weight Without Dieting or Working Out, to find out why we should stay away from these weight loss traps.
When you're perusing the supermarket aisle, foods with nonfat and calorie-free labels can be extremely tempting. The promise of being able to eat what you want without putting on weight is a dieter’s dream. However, these weight loss products aren’t as healthy as they sound. "The main problem with diet foods is that they still contain ingredients that are bad for you, even if the label says there’s no fat. Manufactures don't want to make food that doesn't taste good, so they add sugar to give it flavor," warns JJ. Conversely, if a product claims to be calorie or sugar-free, it will probably contain more fat, salt, or artificial ingredients. According to JJ, companies make one claim and then use other ingredients to add flavor and ensure that people will continue to buy the product. It's a tricky cycle that traps people into purchasing the same product over and over again, especially because they’re not losing any weight and still need to diet.
"Sugar-free cookies, fat-free dressings, and nonfat yogurt are some of the worst offenders," warns JJ. Sugar-free cookies became popular through brands like Weight Watchers. If you check the label, these “guiltless” treats contain ingredients such as fructose, glucose, and corn syrup (all of which are sugar and turn into fat if they’re not burned off). "Because of the sugar-free label, people assume that they can eat as many as they want. Then after finishing a whole box, they wonder why their pants are too snug," says JJ. Nonfat dressings and yogurt are also diet sabotagers in disguise because they typically contain an extremely high amount of preservatives. "While the yogurt may not contain any fat, there are so many artificial flavors added to make it taste good that the probiotics—which is the good part of yogurt—are basically useless.”
Many diet foods also claim to be low calorie, which JJ describes as a label trap. "Calorie tables are extremely misleading," cautions JJ. "The important thing to look for is the type of calorie, not the amount. While the table says there are only two grams of sugar, there may be six grams of bad fat." A healthy diet depends on a variety of foods that help your body to function. By replacing whole, raw foods (such as fruit and vegetables) with diet foods, you are cheating your body of essential vitamins and minerals, and filling it with artificial flavoring that will clog up your body and turn into fat.
JJ's advice? Swap all of your diet foods for fresh fruit and vegetables. Eat Greek yogurt with no extra flavoring and fresh berries, and make your own dressing from lemon and balsamic vinegar. By cutting out the diet foods and eating whole-fat foods moderately, you'll not only improve your chances of living longer and looking better, you'll find that you lose weight without having to work out! "Be mindful of what you're putting in your body, and always read the ingredient list!" she adds.