5 Harmful “Diet” Foods

I went on my first diet when I was in high school. At that time (the late 90s), “fat free” was the rage. So what did I do? I ate everything that was fat free – and as much as I wanted. I ate bowls of pasta with tomato sauce because it was fat free. I ate sugar-laden apple sauce, syrup-coated canned pears, and calorie-dense orange juice in order to get in my fat free fruit servings. Basically I had no idea what I was doing and guess what – it didn’t work.

My freshman year of college I gained a few of those lovely freshman 15 pounds they love to mention (I gained more like 10). That summer I went home and resolved to lose the weight – and then some. I put myself on a very low calorie diet (the new rage) and hit the gym (elliptical and weights mostly) nearly every day for the entire summer and lost 15 lbs!  I existed on egg white omelets, grilled chicken breast, baked potatoes with fake bacon bits & I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray, Lipton chicken-flavored rice, broccoli, Lean Cuisines and Diet Coke. Now that I think of it, I put that artificial butter spray on EVERYTHING.

Although my 19 year old metabolism burned 15 lbs of fat off my body in three short months, it was mainly due to the main principle in weight loss: calorie deficit. If you take in less calories than you burn, you will lose weight.

I know the caloric deficit principle is true today but I also know another thing – if you fill your body with processed crap, no matter how little you eat or how much you work out, you’re not healthy.

I was inspired to write a blog about common diet foods that not only stall weight loss but are also very bad for your overall health.

  1. Diet Soda
  2. Artificial Sweeteners
  3. Calorie-Free Butter Substitutes
  4.  Frozen Dinners (Lean Cuisines, Weight Watchers)
  5.  Coffee

 1.       Diet Soda

This may have been my BIGGEST weakness in my teens and early twenties. I’d often go through 3-4 refills at a meal. I typically judged servers at restaurants on their ability to refill my soda before I finished it. Free delicious calories right? Well they may be free now, but I’d feel it later. Diet soda has been linked to obesity in many studies. Basically, when you drink it, your mouth tastes the super sweet flavor and signals the stomach to digest some serious calories. When those calories don’t come, the stomach signals the brain to crave real calories (multiple studies have been performed over this topic, including a very convincing 2009 article written by David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD). It’s not the actual diet soda that contains calories – rather it’s the fact that you are more likely to overeat later. So technically, if you can contain yourself, you can imbibe diet soda and lose weight. However, it’s important to consider the other negative implications of soda consumption including the acid’s ability to wear your teeth down and make you more prone to cavities. Caffeine, the other devil ingredient in most sodas, also can stimulate appetite to overindulge later. More on that later in the coffee section. Another reason not to imbibe – diet soda (and artificial sweeteners) has been linked to cancer. Although there have been no conclusive results yet, I’d rather not take my chances.

 2.       Artificial Sweeteners

You may think that artificial sweeteners are mostly found in diet soda and calorie-free sweetener packets (Splenda, etc), but you may not realize that this tricky diet saboteur lurks in more of your every day foods than you think. And the reason to avoid these is the same as soda – the stimulate your brain to crave real calories. One of my favorite low-calorie breakfasts during college was either a bowl of Maple Quaker Oatmeal or a Yoplait Non-Fat Yogurt. Unfortunately, both of these items are brimming with artificial sweeteners. Pretty much anything labeled “sugar-free” “low-sugar” or “fat free” is likely to be full of the fake stuff. It has been shown that in studies that when participants included artificial sweeteners in their breakfast, they ate more the rest of the day. When given real sugar, they were less likely to over consume later. Basically, your brain tastes the sweetness and registers that real calories are coming in, and it decides that it is satisfied. Other studies show that overconsumption of overly sweet products (artificial sweeteners taste 200 to 700 TIMES sweeter than sugar) reduce your satisfaction in health food (that apple doesn’t taste quite as good with a soda does it?) and thereby increase your likelihood of eating fattening, salty foods.

 3.       Calorie Free Butter Substitutes

I used to substitute I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Sprayfor butter in recipes. I’m not kidding. I’d make my Lipton instant rice packets (one of my staples growing up) with a whole tablespoon of this unidentifiable liquid. Well, first of all, these sprays (including Pam) claim to have 0 calories but that’s for 1.25 sprays. Once you get into tablespoon size portions, the calories start adding up (thatsfit.com claims that 1 tsp contains 20 calories and 2 grams of fat). But that’s the least of our problems. The biggest issue with these products is the fact that they are man-made. There are rumors that I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray is one molecule away from being a plastic! Oh jeez. I think that’s enough about this one! Avoid it like the plague! A much healthier option is olive oil. 1 tablespoon of olive oil has only 120 calories and goes a very long way when cooking.

 4.       Frozen Dinners

Sorry Lean Cuisine (and all other “diet friendly” frozen entrees), I have to call you out. Despite the convenience of 300 calorie dinners perfectly portioned out into dainty meals, these things are not diet friendly. First, who has ever eaten a Lean Cuisine and felt satisfied? Perhaps if you were bedridden and your body didn’t crave real food beacuase your metabolism is at a hault. Let’s be honest- you could make yourself a 6 ounce piece of chicken & 2 cups of veggies for the same calorie count (and 1.5 more servings of filling veggies). Imagine that meal on a plate next to the Lean Cuisine and you’ll realize that you’re actually getting cheated. Also, many Lean Cuisines pack about 4-5 grams of saturated fat per serving. That’s a lot considering you’re only getting 300 calories out of it. Besides the fact that Lean Cuisines are tiny and usually require a side dish, all frozen means contain WAY too much bloat-inducing sodium to be figure-friendly (from 700 up to 1,800 of the recommended 2,300 mg per day). Last, microwavable meals that are meant to heated under a plastic cover WILL leach plastic into your food. Many plastics contain endocrine disruptors which mess with your metabolism. More on this topic here: http://www.jillianmichaels.com/fitness-and-diet-tips/plastics-to-avoid). 

5.       Coffee

For me, sometimes there is nothing better in the world than a pumpkin spice latte in December. Despite what I will tell you now, nothing will take me away from Starbucks a few times each winter for my favorite drink. However, it will be against my best judgment and I may order it decaf. Coffee is a double whammy weight-loss prohibiter. First, the creamer inside your coffee contains plenty of calories and probably even more artificial sweeteners. Now, if you are a non-fat milk coffee person or even better, a black coffee addict, then you at least won half the battle here. However, the caffeine in coffee is a diet no-no. Caffeine contributes to insulin resistance. Insulin is the lovely little helper that regulates your blood sugar and makes sure your metabolism is working efficiently. Raised insulin levels leads to raised blood pressure & cholesterol levels, causes the kidneys to retain excess fluid (ie frequent bathroom trips), and stores food as fat instead of using it for fuel.  The last one hurt the most didn’t it?   Personally, I was a one to two cup a day person for years. I‘ve always had amazing blood pressure and cholesterol and I’ve remained fit while enjoying it frequently. I believe this is one that can be consumed in moderation. Just don’t go overboard with 4 cups per day!

After all that…

I can personallyattest to many of the reasons to give these diet-sabatuers up. Since giving up soda, coffee and artificial sweeteners, my cravings for these items, as well as fattening and fried food, has nearly disappeared. I eat mostly whole foods – fresh organic meat, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits – and I think that these “health foods” taste delicious. Although I do have cravings and I get excited to indulge on white bread,  pizza or cookies on occasion, it’s much easier to say no to them now. When I used to be a 5-soda a day girl, I’d go WAY overboard when I went out to eat or went to a party. Now, when I do indulge, my body tells me when I’m full and I can stop. It does take some time for your body to get used to cutting out these items (especially the caffeine – I had a horrible headache for 2 ½ days), but it will be worth it.

Now, we’re not perfect. Sometimes you’re in a hurry and you have to eat a frozen meal. Other times nothing in the world sounds better than a Diet Coke on a hot day. Sometimes Pumpkin Spice Lattes call your name. The key here is moderation. Try to avoid these the best you can, and when you do slip up, at least you will know that you’re better off than you were before.

P.S. You’ll also notice that none of these items are allowed in the P90X nutrition program.

3 thoughts on “5 Harmful “Diet” Foods

  1. Denice

    I LOVE Coach’s Oats! I wish I could get them here! I absolutely agree with the artificial sweeteners and diet soda, and probably the coffee too. Since we’ve been away from home, I have had two diet cokes, no artificial sweeteners and only 1 to 1 1/2 cups of coffee a day. My cravings are way down, I feel a lot better and when I do crave something, it’s a piece of fruit or a yogurt. That is not normal for me! We had TWIX bars sitting in the refrigerator for about a month and I wasn’t interested.

    Congratulations on your success with p90x!

  2. Mike

    I can’t deny it. I had a Diet Coke in my hand as I read this. I’ve been doing much better lately with my diet soda habit. Coffee is another story all together.

  3. Chris

    Great post! As you already mentioned, coffee is really not that bad. The worst is the sugar and cream. If you drink it black and keep it down to 2 cups a day, you should be fine. In fact, coffee has some benefits. For example, it boosts your metabolism. Sometimes I drink a cup of coffee 30 minutes before my workout if I feel tired (I usually work out in the afternoon). However, I switched over to green tea for the most part (decaf).

    Here is a nice Infographic about the health benefits of Coffee vs. Tea: http://briantime.net/2011/04/12/the-health-benefits-of-coffee-vs-tea-infographic/

    If you want to find out in detail what caffeine actually does to your brain, check this out: http://lifehacker.com/#!5585217/what-caffeine-actually-does-to-your-brain


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