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The High Cost of "Free" Foods

Think twice before reaching for that fat-free cookie or sugar-free ice cream bar as an afternoon snack.

In most cases, you’re better off having the real thing in moderate portions, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, wellness manager at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.

The issue, Kirkpatrick says, is that choosing heavily processed foods over natural foods often means taking in too many additives and refined ingredients with questionable nutritional value.

Substitutions — but no substitute for the real thing.

We Americans love our sugar and fat, and for good reason. Studies have shown that sugar opens up areas in the brain and can either energize people or make them feel calmer. Similarly, fat leads to feelings of satisfaction and a sense of fullness, Ms. Kirkpatrick says.

“This roller coaster up and down — if this is the norm for your diet, it can lead to inflammation in the body and chronic disease.”

The issue: When a manufacturer removes these ingredients from a product, they have to replace it with something else consumers love. “Otherwise the product won’t work, and the consumer won’t buy it anymore,” she says.

Often this means replacing fat or sugar with something that has less nutritional value. Take reduced-fat peanut butter, for example. Manufacturers typically use fewer peanuts in it than in full-fat peanut butter. Instead, they add more sugar, corn syrup or honey. In some cases, they also include a soy protein to compensate for the loss of protein.

Like many other foods featuring healthy fats, peanut butter in its original form is a wonderful, satisfying product that is packed with protein and can even help reduce heart disease risk factors, Kirkpatrick says. Taking away the main protein source decreases that benefit. And adding more sugar increases the likelihood of rapid increases and drops in blood sugar.

“This roller coaster up and down — if this is the norm for your diet, it can lead to inflammation in the body and chronic disease,” Kirkpatrick says.

Fat-free salad dressing is another example of a “diet” food to avoid, says Tanya Edwards, MD, medical director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. It tends to be loaded with added sugar. Edwards says people looking for a healthy alternative are better off making their own salad dressing, using ingredients such as olive oil and lemon juice.

Kirkpatrick echoes that sentiment and offers some simple shopping advice: When considering a fat-free peanut butter or salad dressing on the supermarket shelf, skip the numbers on the nutrition labels and go straight for the ingredients.

If “sugar” is in the first four ingredients, then it’s probably not a good option, she says.

Portion control is another issue. Consumers tend to develop a “health halo” about fat-free products and forget that fat-free doesn’t mean calorie free. As a result, you may end up eating more fat-free cookies.” than you would regular cookies, because when eating regular cookies, you’re more inclined to limit your portion.

“If I were to counsel my patients, I would tell them to go out once a month and get an appropriate portion of real ice cream they enjoy and really savor and feel good about having,” Kirkpatrick says. Getting a kiddie cup of the real thing is a much smarter option than having a diet ice cream bar every night of the week.

The bottom line: Don’t rely on fat-free or sugar-free products as no-consequence foods, she emphasizes.

Some fat-free alternatives can be beneficial, especially if saturated and trans fats are a concern, Edwards noted. Yogurt, for example, is a very good source of calcium, protein and helpful bacteria. What people can do without is the extra saturated fat in regular yogurt.

Her advice is to choose plain 1 percent or fat-free dairy products. Need something sweet on top of that yogurt? Add fresh or frozen berries, she says. “Flavored yogurts usually either have so much sugar or sugar-free sweeteners that I don’t recommend any of them,” she says. Flavored yogurt is yet another case where “fat-free” comes with its own sorts of warnings — and unwanted ingredients.

Many people have trained their taste buds to expect sweetness in foods. “It’s becomes a habit, so if you expect something to taste sweet and it doesn’t, you’re going to be very disappointed,” Dr. Edwards said. She offers advice: You can retrain your taste buds by removing sugar from your diet for 30 days.

“Initially, if you’re used to eating yogurt with plenty of sugar or sugar-free substitutes and you switch over to plain, it’s going to taste different. But if you keep up with it, you’ll grow to love the taste,” she says.

Reprinted with permission from health.clevelandclinic.org. For more information, visit health.clevelandclinic.org.