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Ditch the “Diet” Food

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

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The number of new products making a “low-fat” claim has dropped, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. That’s a trend I can support.

Sometimes people can be so focused on finding low-fat on the label that they’re blinded by everything else. All too often, they end up eating more and being satisfied less – the unintended consequences of trying to be “good.”

It’s the low-fat halo at work. Brian Wansink at Cornell University has investigated this repeatedly. One of his studies found that people ate about 50 percent more – or an average of 90 additional calories — when a snack had “low-fat” on the label compared to the regular version.

Low-fat labels tend to give people the mental permission to eat more, he says. People feel less guilty when they reach for a low-fat snack, which translates into eating more. It’s an easy mistake to make. Like many folks, the people in the study mistakenly believed that “low-fat” is equal to “low-calorie.” In reality, the low-fat snacks used in the study were not that much lower in calories than the regular versions — which is what you’ll often find with many of the low-fat snacks on supermarket shelves.

That’s why I’m not such a big fan of snacks boasting about being low-fat or fat-free, and I don’t really like cookies, cakes, and other sweets trumpeting their lack of sugar. I’d much rather enjoy a moderate portion of the real thing than eat a so-called “diet” version. That’s the way I cook, too. I really don’t like to see cookbooks filled with desserts made with artificial sweeteners and entrees that rely on fat-free cheese, reduced-calorie margarines, or other similar ingredients. Fat-free bottled salad dressing? No thank you. I prefer to make my own vinaigrette with extra-virgin olive oil. And when flipping through those diet cookbooks, I hate to see recipes described as “guilt-free.” All foods should be guilt-free.

Our meal mindset is so important. We should be approaching food with a sense of pleasure – not guilt, fear, or regret. If you’re in a constant search for the best “diet” food, you may never feel fully satisfied and may simply keep eating to fill up the void. That was underscored again by a fascinating study led by Yale psychologist Alia Crum, who gave participants two different types of milkshakes – one was a “diet” version, described as fat-free, no added sugar, and low-calorie. Its label promised “guilt-free satisfaction.” The other shake was the indulgent version, described as high-fat with 620 calories. Its label touted “decadence you deserve.” Guess what? They were the exact same milkshake (380 calories), but the participants didn’t know that.

When the participants drank the “guilt-free” milkshake, their bodies responded much differently than when they consumed the indulgent shake. Even though the nutrient profiles of the shakes were identical, the diet shake was less satisfying and the researchers had blood samples to prove it. They measured levels of ghrelin, or what’s often referred to as the “hunger hormone.” When your blood levels of ghrelin are high, it sends signals to your brain to say you’re hungry. As you eat, ghrelin levels fall, which reduces your appetite and makes you feel full.  Ghrelin levels may also influence your metabolism: low levels speed up your calorie burn, while high levels may slow the burning of calories.

After drinking the indulgent milkshake, the ghrelin levels of the participants dramatically declined. Yet, when they were given the diet milkshake, ghrelin levels stayed stable – indicating that their bodies did not get the same signals of fullness.  That’s rather astounding to me. Participants drank a shake that had the same amount of calories and fat, but their perceptions of what they were about to drink altered their body’s physiological response.  When we think we’re getting a “diet” food, we anticipate feeling deprived and our body reacts with more hunger and less satiety.

To me, this is even more evidence to ditch the diet food, and keep pleasure a part of the picture at mealtime. You may find yourself eating less and enjoying it more.

Photo: PhotoObjects.net
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