Packaged foods and drinks labeled “diet” and “low calorie” may seem appealing if you’re trying to lose weight.
They’re easy to find, too. Sodas, crackers, frozen entrees and even sweets are on the long list of foods that come in diet varieties.
These items may help you kick-start a healthy eating regimen or learn more about portion control as you try to avoid extra weight. Between 60 and 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. But there are some important warnings to keep in mind with diet foods.
First, be careful not to use low-calorie food to justify eating more later in the day, said Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., who chairs the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.
“As long as people don’t compensate for those calories it can be an effective tool,” Johnson said. She warned against thinking: “Oh, I had a diet beverage … so, therefore, I can have the cookies.”
Read Labels, Control Portions
If you eat packaged “diet” foods, it helps to become a savvy nutrition label reader. Be sure to note the serving size because sometimes the foods don’t really contain fewer calories, said Johnson, the Bickford Professor of Nutrition and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
Some of these foods don’t provide much nutritional value, either. For example, snack items in 100-calorie packs might just be empty calories in smaller quantities, she said.
Controlling the portion size of the foods you consume is crucial in healthy eating and weight management, Johnson said.
“If you’re craving chocolate once in a while, have a small piece (preferably dark chocolate, rich in flavonoids), enjoy it and then move on from your craving,” she said.
Frozen low-calorie entrees can help you become familiar with what an appropriate portion size should look like, so eating those meals occasionally can be useful, Dr. Johnson said.
However, check to make sure the food isn’t loaded with too much sodium, which raises the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
One of the most important weight management tips is “to think about your drink” and move away from beverages full of added sugars, Johnson said.
Diet beverages can be useful in helping you make the transition from sugar-sweetened beverages to healthy beverages like water and skim or 1 percent milk.
The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association issued a scientific statement in July about the use of nonnutritive sweeteners such as food additives aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, saccharin and sucralose and plant-derived stevia.
Nonnutritive sweeteners, when used judiciously, can help reduce the intake of added sugars in food and drinks and therefore assist in weight control. A high intake of added sugars can contribute to cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
The potential benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners will be offset if using them leads to ingesting more calories from other foods, the scientific statement warned. The statement also said evidence is inconclusive about whether use of nonnutritive sweeteners is effective over the long run for reducing consumption of calories and added sugars.