Diet Foods and Their Impact on Public Health

Diet Foods and Their Impact on Public Health

Diet food and some mainstream brands like to latch onto phrases like “zero trans fat,” “no added sugar,” and so on to signal how healthy their products supposedly are.

While each claim does represent a healthy attribute in its own right, this is often used to distract consumers from less healthful processing and ingredients involved.

In some rare cases, popular diet foods can be healthy, but if it comes in a box or a bottle, that’s strikes one and two.

More on that later—for now, let’s take a look at the minefield that is the diet food industry.

The Most Successful Diet Food Scams in History

The Ingredients List Doesn’t (Really) Lie

At best, these diet food scams are nutritionally void, and at worst, they’re slowly poisoning consumers. It’s always best to consult the ingredients list.

A very large-scale CDC survey from 2009-2010 found that at least one fifth of the US population consumed diet sodas on any given day.

Even without all that sugar, diet soda is still associated with an increased incidence of diabetes.

This is largely due to the worsening of “the fiber gap,” since fiber is so important in the attenuation of blood sugar spikes, which is of course not helped by filling up on diet drinks.

Another study from the University of Texas Health Science Center found that long-term diet soda consumption is positively correlated with metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions characterized by increased waist circumference, high triglycerides, increased blood pressure, and greatly increased risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cardiac events (stroke/heart attack).

In other words, long-term diet soda consumption is intricately woven into many “epidemic-level” health concerns affecting Americans, and it is the extent to which it replaces nutritionally dense foods that poses the greatest public health threat.

Granola and Trail Mix

In the interest of fairness, a small subset of granola and trail mix brands are starting to back off of the sugar, but for the most part, you can see as much as 15 or 20 grams of added sugar for just a half cup of granola or trail mix.

Flavored granola bars are especially culpable here, often reaching 25% sugar content by dry weight.

When added to an already calorie-dense, albeit healthy mixture of fats and carbs, this is a recipe for weight gain, not to mention the systemic inflammation, increased diabetes risk, and other problems directly associated with excess sugar consumption.

The sodium content isn’t quite as egregious, but one granola bar or a single scoop of salty trail mix can still provide up to a quarter of the sodium RDA.

Margarine

The 90s saw a huge boom in the popularity of margarine, which, with the help of the iconic Fabio, even ousted butter from the long-held mantle of the most preferred American spread for a while.

The deleterious effects of saturated fats and “bad cholesterol” on heart health are what motivated nutritional experts to steer the public away from butter and towards margarine, but this migration proved a fruitless one soon after.

While margarine is indeed lower in saturated fats than butter, its trans fat content negates this benefit.

This Harvard article chronicling the epic clash between butter and margarine recommends using olive oil and mono- and polyunsaturated fats instead.

Energy Bars

Like granola and trail mix, there is a slightly healthier end of this spectrum, but many brands are still using energy bars as an opportunity to peddle rebranded candy bars at double the price.

Here’s the best case scenario in terms of energy bars:

  • Real fruits and nuts
  • High protein (10+ grams) and fiber (5+ grams)
  • Less than 10g of sugar

Here’s the worst case scenario:

  • Cheap fillers and grains
  • Mediocre protein (<10g) and fiber (<5g)
  • High added sugar content (15+ grams)

You can save time and effort spent checking labels by simply looking at the product image first.

If the bar looks like a miniaturized bullion brick with perfectly formed right angles enrobed in a glossy, uniform coat of sugary glop, then avoid it.

If you can actually see evidence of nuts, fruits, and other healthier ingredients, it’s almost always a better choice.

Veggie Pasta

Don’t be embarrassed if you thought that veggie pasta is somehow made from vegetables—you’re not the only one.

The disenchanting reality is that most veggie pasta products are just the same simple-carb-loaded noodles with a few sprinkles of powderized vegetables added on for negligible increases in nutritional content.

In many cases, the vitamin A, vitamin C, and other nutrients added into this nutritionally void food constitute less than 10% of their respective RDAs.

Meanwhile, the same old noodles are metabolized into sugar in your system almost instantly, which is one reason why it’s so hard to turn down a steamy bowl or three of pasta.

A much healthier alternative in this case is spaghetti squash, which will provide ample helpings of vitamin C, vitamin B, potassium, and hey—it still has plenty of carbs.

Banana Chips

Banana chips and most dried fruit snacks are actually more dense in fat and sodium than potato chips.

Normally, the calorically dense banana is bringing you a commensurate offering of fiber, potassium, and vitamin B6.

But fry it up and douse it with salt, and this healthy energy source becomes a questionable one.

This Forbes article goes into more detail about how the typical preparation of banana chips jacks up the fat content.

You’d be much better off with real bananas.

Dishonorable Mentions

What you’ve seen so far are just the highlights from the American food industry’s multi-decade effort to primp junk foods into seemingly healthier alternatives.

There are dozens, if not hundreds more of these pseudo-nutritious food products in circulation, but these three in combination with the above items are among the most commonly consumed.

Multigrain bread – Made with fillers and empty calories; cause sharp upticks in blood glucose.

Low-fat or fat-free dressing – Impair uptake of fat-soluble nutrients like carotenoids, loaded with corn syrup and preservatives (oil and vinegar is better than any kind of store-bought dressing).

Frozen diet meals – Very high sodium and lots of preservatives.

The Old Stuff Still Works

It may not be as “fun” or convenient, but the old stuff still works, and even organic produce is sometimes less expensive than unhealthy diet foods because it fills you up for longer.

In fact, we found that marketing noise and nutritional value are often inversely related, as in the case of fibrous fruits and vegetables, minimally processed nuts/seeds/legumes, and healthy sources of lean meat like fish, poultry, etc.

These aren’t groundbreaking revelations to most, but altering your grocery shopping routine to circumvent temptation is more an act of willpower.

Setting standard practices can help with the impulse buys—here’s what we recommend:

  • If it has a label and/or box to begin with, be more skeptical, but if it has a peel, shell, etc., throw it in the cart.
  • Do a lap around the store, sticking closer to the walls, and try to get at least 50% of your purchases from these areas (produce, butcher, etc.) before proceeding to the middle aisles.
  • Know how to interpret health claims beyond face value for what they might be hiding, e.g., “zero sugar” might mean high fat, “0g fat” might mean sugar and preservatives, etc.

Finally, remember that positive change in almost every arena is incremental and imperfect.

With a committed mindset and healthy prioritization of nature’s original diet foods, you’ve got everything you need to rise above the statistics.

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