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Why low-fat is not low-cal

Rohini Cardoso e Diniz | March 28, 2006

You head to the market on your weekly shopping expedition and an array of food products meet your eye. Many of these are especially formulated to cater to the calorie and health conscious. They promise to satiate your appetite without making you put on much weight.

But are they really effective? Do they help you cut calories? Do they have side-effects? 

We decided to find out.

Low on fat, high on carbohydrate?

Before we check some of the commonly available low fat foods, please remember low fat does not necessarily mean low in calories. Foods that claim to be low in fat may still contain large amounts of sugar or starch and hence be calorie dense. So, while low fat foods may help you reach or maintain a healthy weight, it is the overall caloric intake you need to keep track of.

Artificial sweeteners

These sugar substitutes, made from a variety of chemical or natural substances, are much sweeter than table sugar but provide lesser calories.

i. The earliest and most popular artificial sweetener was saccharin (Sweetex, Sweet 'n' Low are some of the brand names). These are suitable for sweetening beverages, but cannot be used for baking.

ii. In 1951, another sweetener named aspartame was developed. Marketed under brand names like Sugar Free, Equal, Nutrasweet and Sweetex Gold, it is available in the form of a tablet or granules and is, today, the most popular and widely used low calorie sweetener in the world. It loses its sweetness when heated though, so it cannot be used for cooking or baking. It can be used to prepare a limited range of Indian sweets such as gajar ka halwa, rasmalai or rasgollas that can be sweetened after cooking.

In recent years, the safety of the long-term use of aspartame is being questioned after a number of studies have shown adverse effects. A word of caution: pregnant women, nursing mothers, children and persons suffering from phenylketonuria should not use aspartame.

iii. In 1976, another sweetener named sucralose was discovered. Available under the brand name Zero, SugaRite and Sugar Free Natura, it is by far the safest sweetener as it is manufactured from sugar and has good water solubility and heat stability. Products sweetened with sucralose also maintain their sweetness during cooking. Sucralose has a good safety profile; over 100 scientific studies conducted over a 20-year period have shown it is safe for use as a sweetening agent.

Among the regulatory bodies that have evaluated the safety of sucralose are the US Food and Drug Administration, the Joint FAO/ WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare, Canada, Food Standards Australia/ New Zealand, the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food and a host of other such organisations in South America and Asia. Sucralose is now permitted for use in over 60 countries.

Health byte: Artificial sweeteners do not really help one cut down calories or lose weight. They only help reduce or eliminate the amount of calories obtained from sugar.
If suitable modification is not made in the amount of fat (butter, ghee, margarine and vanaspati) and flour (starch) used in a recipe, the dish may still be calorie rich.

The good thing is, if one strictly follows a low calorie diet by avoiding all forms of refined sugars, controlling starch intake and avoiding excessive amounts of oil and fried foods, these are beneficial as they help one enjoy a sweet taste without adding extra calories.

Skim milk

This is milk from which the fat has been removed before packaging. It is available in both liquid and powder form. Although the skimming process lowers the fat and caloric content of the milk, it alters the taste. As a result, not everyone likes it. It is better, therefore, to use home-made skim milk.

To prepare this, boil one packet of dairy milk the previous night. Cool and refrigerate. Next morning, remove the cream layer that has formed. Heat the milk and use as desired. In case double skimmed milk is needed, cool the hot milk and remove the cream that has formed.

Health byte: The use of skim milk instead of regular dairy milk does help in reducing weight as the fat content of the diet is greatly reduced, especially for vegetarians. However, one should be careful not to use too much oil, ghee or butter as this will add more calories, resulting in a weight gain.

Margarine

Made from a mixture of vegetable oils and skim milk, margarine is a substitute for butter. Unlike butter, which is made up of saturated fatty acids, margarine contains PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids). However, during the manufacture of margarine, there is a production of trans fatty acids, which are harmful to the heart when consumed in excess.

You must remember that, even though the fat content of margarine may be less than butter, it is still a source of fat. What matters more than the quality is the quantity. You need to exercise control over the amount of margarine you use.

Health byte: As margarine is primarily a butter substitute, it is beneficial for persons suffering from heart disease and elevated levels of blood cholesterol due to the presence of PUFA. However, such individuals need to look for brands that declare they are low in trans fatty acids.

As far as the amount is concerned, about half a teaspoonful of margarine can be used as a spread on bread or toast. It is best to spread it on hot toast or chappatis. This helps it spread easily and you end up using a less margarine.

Using margarine instead of butter does not help in weight loss in any way.

Biscuits

In order to cater to the health conscious, a number of low fat biscuits are available. Many also contain fibre, which makes them healthier. A particular brand claims to be 88 per cent fat free. But are these claims substantiated?

Health byte: Though the manufacturers claim their biscuits are low in fat, some of them do not declare the actual fat content on the pack.

Diet colas, diet drinks

These are sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame instead of sugar and provide minimal calories. Although aspartame is widely used as a sweetener, as we have mentioned earlier, the safety of its use over the long-term use is now being questioned.

Health byte: Consumption of these drinks instead of regular aerated drinks as part of a low calorie diet does not cause weight gain. However, one must avoid going overboard.
It is best to skip diet drinks and prefer natural, minimally sweetened fresh fruit juices, nimbu soda, buttermilk or coconut water instead.

Baked munchies (namkeen and farsan)

These are the latest additions to the list of diet foods.

Health byte: Although they have less fat, they still contribute a substantial amount of calories from carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain if one does not ration portions.

The other danger is they are often over-salted. Excessive consumption of salt promotes water retention in the body and this can also lead to an increase in weight. The good thing is that, when consumed as part of a balanced diet instead of the regular oily stuff, baked snacks are beneficial.

Sugar free mithai like rasgollas

This is another item that caters to the needs of the health conscious. They may either be made from pure dry fruit puree without the addition of mava (dried cream) or ghee, or the regular way, but with artificial sweeteners instead of sugar.

Health byte: Even though these are lower in calories than regular sweets, do not go overboard and indulge.

Are you a fitness freak? Like to discuss your exercise programme with other fitness wallahs? Join the Gym Lovers Discussion Group.

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Rohini is a consultant dietician with Naomi's Fitness Centre and manages a private practice in Goa.



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