Real Talk About Fake Food

When you start losing weight, there is clearly a shift from eating a higher percentage of unhealthy foods in your diet to eating a mix that involves more healthy foods. But there is always a debate about what’s considered healthy and what isn’t. It’s obvious that a well-seasoned, grilled chicken breast is more healthy than a fried chicken breast, or a cup of squash versus a serving of butter- and cheese-laden mashed potatoes from your favorite chain restaurant, but other foods are in a gray area.

I started thinking about this last week, after I lent a hand at work on lightening up a recipe to be offered to patients with special needs. Refried beans needed to be replaced because of high fat and carbohydrate content, and my first response was to go with fat-free refried beans instead. I use them all the time, in breakfast burritos, with fat-free tortillas and reduced-fat cheddar. Someone in on the conversation was surprised to hear about their existence, and wondered what they were “fried” with, if they didn’t contain any fat. I didn’t have an answer, and I didn’t investigate afterward, because part of me is afraid to find out the answer.

I recently read an article in Glamour magazine on foods that nutritionists wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and although I could easily say that I don’t eat the little cups of nonfat, sugar-free flavored yogurts that made the list (I’m not a fan of the artificial taste, and I’ve since learned that nonfat Greek yogurt, with canned pumpkin, no sugar added apple sauce, or actual fruit has more protein and a richer taste), I quickly realized that there were other foods I eat that are healthier on paper when compared to full-fat counterparts, but not necessarily in ingredients and what they offer (or will later do to) my body.

For example, fat-free cheese slices. Before Weight Watchers, I might have been more inclined to use actual cheddar slices in a sandwich, but these days I use the individually wrapped, processed cheese in sandwiches (reserving reduced-fat cheddar for omelets, salads, etc.). According to Weight Watchers points calculations, there’s nothing wrong with getting two slices, even, when it comes to fat/carbohydrate/fiber/protein considerations. I think about how artificial it is every time I eat it, but then I figure that if I’m eating processed cheese anyway, why not go with the kind without extra fat added? I’ve been rethinking my logic on that lately, debating going back to the full-fat cheese and cutting calories elsewhere, or just omitting cheese altogether.

What else made the list? Bottled salad dressings (for frequent inclusion of high-fructose corn syrup), high-protein cereals (deemed to have no nutritional value and to be redundant for protein if you’re eating it with milk or yogurt), coffee creamer (hidden trans fat), processed meat (high sodium and sketchy preservative additives), and sweetened drinks—with the RD weighing in on this last item against full-sugar drinks and fruit juices for caloric reasons, but also artificially sweetened beverages, because she says they make you crave sugary foods.

The sweetened beverage question is a challenge for me. I don’t drink juice or full-sugar soda (and only occasionally do I drink sugar-free soda), but I am a big Splenda user—for coffee (made with creamer…), tea, and in those sugar-free flavor packets that you add to bottles of water. I personally don’t find myself craving sugary things after having a sugar-free beverage, but I have wondered about long-term use of sucralose. However, I don’t like the taste of stevia, and as I found out recently, a serving of agave nectar is the same as a serving of honey in calorie content. (Although to be fair, agave nectar seems to be pretty sweet, and I should probably experiment with using a little less in a drink to see what happens.) I love water, but can’t see myself carrying out life only drinking water or unsweetened tea.

A major blind spot with the Glamour article is that, for some of the items, there weren’t suggestions for alternatives. (I’m definitely curious to know what the one RD would suggest in the realm of beverages.) But I wonder if there are easy answers anyway. This is another one of those areas that I’d like to think a little more about where I draw the line. How much processed, artificially-sweetened food should I be eating? If I stop cutting caloric corners with these foods, what to do I do to compensate for possibly adding back things with more calories or fat on occasion? I’ll be walking around with my thinking cap on about how best to approach this situation for myself, but I’m curious to know your thoughts. Thanks in advance for your feedback!


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