Supermarket diet foods

We talk to the experts about popular diet brands and whether they can really help you lose weight.
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03.Diet foods 101

Low-fat fixation

Fat in food slows down the rate of food leaving your stomach, and so can help keep you full for longer
- Dr Joanna McMillan

Low fat is a favourite badge on branded diet food packaging, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthier choice for weight loss. The low-fat trend historically started as a way of reducing kilojoule counts in foods, and sugar or refined starches (white flour, white pasta, white rice) are often used to replace fat.

“Fat in food slows down the rate of food leaving your stomach, and so can help keep you full for longer,” says McMillan. “Fats also carry fat-soluble vitamins, and many antioxidants, including beta-carotene, need fat to be absorbed. But you do need to be careful about which fats you include in your diet.

“Think about what your ancestors ate before processed foods – they ate fat as part of natural foods such as avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, oily fish and animal foods. Many fats in the modern diet come from refined oils and fats used in processed food products, and these are the ones to limit.”

Artificial lows

It’s common for diet products – in particular yoghurts and ice-creams – to reduce kilojoules by using artificial sweeteners. Products often boast they’re “97% fat free” and have “no added sugar”, but tend not to shout out that they’re artificially sweetened. So if you don’t like the idea of artificial sweeteners you’ll need to check the ingredients list.

Weight Watchers has a novel way of reducing kilojoules in its “no added sugar” peaches. Instead of juice or syrup, the fruit comes in water sweetened with cyclamate (additive 952) and saccharin (954), an artificial sweetener used in Sweet’n Low. This reduces its kilojoule load to 109kJ per 100g compared with 261kJ for the Goulburn Valley Peaches in juice.

Coles Simply Less Dark Chocolate has 375kJ per 20g bar compared with 425kJ for a 20g bar of Coles Dark Chocolate. But its main ingredient is maltitol, a sugar substitute that can have a laxative effect if eaten in excess. 

Diet ready meals

These diet ready meals should be reserved for an emergency – when you come home starving or are in a hurry.
- Dr Joanna McMillan

“Diet ready meals are more nutritionally balanced than they used to be,” says McMillan. “However, the serves are small in order to keep the kilojoule count down, so they may not fill you up enough or keep you full for long, and you may find yourself reaching for a snack soon after.”

McMillan says it’s preferable to eat food with a low-energy density such as salads, vegetables or legumes, along with a small serve of lean protein, because you can eat lots of these foods for the same amount of kilojoules compared with highly processed ready meals. They’re also digested slowly, keeping you feeling full for longer, and provide a range of beneficial nutrients you won’t find in those meals.

Although the diet lasagnes we looked at generally have less sodium than regular lasagne ready meals, the sodium levels are still very high. Both McCain Healthy Choice Beef Lasagne and Coles Simply Less Beef & Vegetable Lasagne contain 900mg per 400g serve. (The current advice in Australia is for adults to consume less than 1600mg per day.)

“A better choice than a takeaway, these diet ready meals should be reserved for an emergency – when you come home starving or are in a hurry,” says McMillan. “And bulk it up with a quick salad or side of mixed veggies from the freezer.”


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