"I'm a very healthy eater," says Emily, a 30-year-old, stick-thin investment banker. "My diet consists of fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, Tasti D-Lite frozen dessert, Diet Coke, lollipops, sugar-free gum, and 100-calorie packs. Thank God for the 100-calorie packs. They've changed my life."
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Emily is a card-carrying — make that banner-waving — member of the newest group of calorie counters: junk-food dieters. According to their credo, low-calorie is good; no-calorie is better — even if the food contains more chemicals than a can of hair spray. "If it's associated with being a certain size, they'll eat it freely," says Lauren Slayton, director of Foodtrainers, a nutrition counseling center in New York City. Many believe ingesting a few artificial ingredients is a small price to pay for being able to eat the things they love while staying as thin as a Pringle.
The people who fit the profile are as much of an oxymoron as the concept of diet junk food itself. Women who would never carry a fake Birkin seem to not think twice about toting around fake butter. "I have clients who go to the best hairstylist, the best trainer, and have the best clothes — yet eat this trailer food," says Slayton. The irony of this is lost on Lindsey, 24, a talent manager who says that processed foods like Lean Cuisine are as much a part of an affluent lifestyle as couture is. "When you're going to dinners and cocktail parties all the time, you've got to budget your calories during the day," she says. "And the easiest way to do this is to eat things that have the calories printed on the back."
Easy? No argument there. Effective? In some cases, yes. Every nutritionist interviewed for this story was quick to pledge their allegiance to natural products ("If only you'd eat more processed foods!" is not something you're apt to hear out of any nutritionist's mouth). But a few brave souls went out on a limb, admitting that low-fat chips and individual packs of cookies can help keep one's weight in check. Stephen Gullo, a weight-loss specialist in New York City, recommends certain low-calorie junk foods to clients. Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, can make a case for them, too: "If you're eating a balanced diet and have used the majority of your calories wisely and have a few extra calories, then fine." But there are a few important things to know to ward off junk … in your trunk.
Driven to distraction
Kate, a 32-year-old advertising executive, made an important discovery a few years back: Chewing sugarless gum — an entire 18-pack of Extra over the course of a day — prevented her from snacking. "I have it on hand at all times. It's stashed in my drawers at work, in my kitchen cabinets, in my car. If I don’t have any, I'll have to run out to buy some," she says.
"I hear this all the time," says Slayton. "People will say, 'I'll chew a piece of gum after dinner, and it prevents me from eating everything in sight because it keeps my mouth occupied.' And that makes sense." Bowerman has recommended this trick to her clients, although she warns that gum can have an unpleasant side effect: gas. However, gum sweetened with Splenda, as opposed to sugar alcohols (namely sorbitol), rarely causes this problem.
Lollipops, which typically weigh in at around 60 calories, are another tool to keep one's mouth busy and out of trouble. The logic is that if you're sucking on one, you're presumably not sucking down a sleeve of cookies. Nutritionists will argue that an apple is also low in calories and also takes a while to eat — and New York City nutritionist Esther Blum, author of "Eat, Drink, and Be Gorgeous" (Chronicle Books), points out that some lollipops contain hydrogenated oil, "which may raise cholesterol and cause hormone disruptions." What's more, sucking on one makes you look like Britney Spears.
Amy, a 30-year-old publicist, credits Starbucks iced nonfat latte with keeping her hand out of the office cookie jar. "I started drinking one for breakfast instead of having cottage cheese and berries, and I lost ten pounds,” she says. "Sipping it all morning quells my food cravings. When I used to eat the cottage cheese and fruit, I'd crave more food until lunch."
But can this possibly be healthy?
Gullo notes that many coffee drinks contain skim milk, which provides protein for minimal calories. But nutritionists concur that they shouldn't be used to replace a meal. "These drinks can be as low as 100 calories, and if someone's previous breakfast was 200 calories, that could result in a weight loss of ten pounds a year. And yes, sipping a drink all morning can make you feel full," says Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center. "But the best research we have about weight management is that successful losers eat breakfast."
Anyone who's made a trip down the grocery store aisle lately can vouch for the fact that virtually every snack comes in 100-calorie-pack form.
Provided you’re a fairly disciplined person, 100-calorie packs "can give you the pleasure of food without weight gain, because people tend to consider the end of a package the end of eating," says Gullo. "But if you need to have more than one package, they don't work for you. You shouldn't give an alcoholic light beer, and you shouldn’t give a binge eater light snacks." In fact, a new study found that people who were given a large box of individually packaged snacks ate 81 percent more than those given a smaller box of packs, suggesting that we'll eat as many packs as we have in front of us. If you can't stop yourself from consuming bag after bag and don't want to ban snacks altogether, Gullo suggests hiding them in a hard-to-reach location.
The same thing applies to candy. Having one individually wrapped mini chocolate bar is certainly better for your waistline than eating the full-size, several-hundred-calorie version. But small things come in bigger packages, making a mockery of self-restraint.
Also easily abusable: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! Spray. Most nutritionists aren’t opposed to misting vegetables with it, especially if it gets people to eat greens they'd otherwise avoid. But don't be fooled by the zero-calorie label. "There are no calories if you spray five times. If you spray 20, it has cumulative calories. Don’t spray and spray and step on the scale and expect miracles,” says Slayton, who knows of one celebrity who gained weight after going through a bottle every three days.
Another culprit is every girl's best friend, frozen desserts. Gullo had a client so obsessed with Tasti D-Lite, she called the company to buy her own machine. While the ingredient list is fairly harmless, the portions are another story. "The company has come under fire in the press for the sizes they're serving and how much mix goes in the machine," says Slayton. "I have clients who swear they're getting the small-size vanilla. I take it out of their diet and replace it with a grocery pop that has the same number of calories that Tasti D-Lite claims a small has, and they lose weight." To ensure she's not overserved, 35-year-old Amanda, a teacher, takes matters into her own hands. "I tell them I want only a little bit and then keep an eye on them as they dispense it, practically leaning over the counter to make sure I can see what's going on. When it looks like there's a lot in the cup, I yell, 'That's good, that's good, thanks!'" she says.
Frozen yogurt chains, to their credit, are cleaning up their acts. Pinkberry and Red Mango are dairy-based and claim to contain live cultures, which populate your body with healthy bacteria that keep your digestive tract running smoothly. But because they still contain sugar — and because people behind the counter swirl with abandon — your best bet would be a preportioned plain low-fat yogurt sweetened with honey.
Just as there are two candidates who emerge from the pack in every political race, there are two portion-control-designed foods that stand out from the crowd for being worth their salt. "Baked Lays may be high in sodium and pretty much all starch," says Bowerman, "but they can satisfy someone's craving for salt and crunch." And since they're typically sold in individual 130-calorie bags, people aren't as likely to tear into more than one serving. "There's just something so gratifying about ripping open a bag and eating the whole thing," says Nicole, 25, a freelance writer.
And if there's one processed food that truly lives up to its name, it's Lean Cuisine. Even the higher-fat entrees like macaroni and cheese — which Jana Klauer, a physician specializing in nutrition in New York City and the author of "How the Rich Get Thin" (St. Martin’s Griffin), says contains an impressive amount of protein — get the thumbs-up from many nutritionists, especially if you add a side of vegetables or a salad to improve the nutrient tally. "They are automatic portion control and allow you to enjoy a food you like that would have more calories at a restaurant or if you made it at home," says Gullo. "I don’t know if the Michelin Guide is going to include Lean Cuisine, but it does have value."
A few years ago, nutritionists deemed white sugar the weapon of diet mass destruction. Many women turned to artificially sweetened drinks and desserts instead. It sounded like a win-win: same taste, fewer calories.
It turns out it's not so simple. "Artificial sweeteners stimulate both a physiological and a psychological need for sweetness, making you crave more sweets. So you just end up eating more and more," says Klauer. Making matters worse, artificially flavored foods are sweetened to a very high degree. "Now, when people turn to fruits and other foods that are naturally sweet, they don't think they taste sugary enough," says Bowerman. "So they keep going for the fake stuff."
One especially popular fake sweet is Diet Coke. But despite much anecdotal evidence that would suggest otherwise, studies have shown that people who drink diet soda are fatter than those who drink the regular kind. This news comes as no surprise to Gullo, who says he’s seen patients give up Diet Coke and lose up to six pounds. Maybe it's because the soda's sodium had been causing them to retain water, "or they figure they're saving calories by drinking diet soda, so they feel entitled to have a high-calorie treat later," says Klauer, who lumps Diet Snapple in the same category as diet soft drinks. Instead of soda, Klauer recommends sparkling water. Because it's carbonated, it feels like you're drinking soda. When Karmally has clients who don't want to give up diet soda, she urges them to stop at two a day.
You could also reach for another diet junk food: sugar-free Jell-O. It's a preportioned sweet that comes in small tubs. "At ten calories a serving, Jell-O is a great dessert," says Gullo. Just be mindful of how much Reddi-Wip you squirt on top (after all, to most of us, Jell-O is merely a vehicle for whipped cream). In large quantities, the negligible calorie count per serving even in the fat-free version adds up — and the full-fat version contains evil trans fats. "It's poison!" says Klauer.
Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.