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Diet food: More expensive, less effective?
Samreedhi Goel

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June 10, 2008

Everyone is climbing onto the 'diet foods' bandwagon these days -- wholewheat bread, oatmeal and fat-free dressings are to be found on most kitchen shelves and people are spending huge sums of money in the name of health.

If you're planning on stocking up on health foods too, or are already in the process of doing so, here are some little-known facts about those available in the Indian market:

  • 80 percent of these foods are not really 'diet' or low-fat, as they claim.
  • Most diet substitutes are more expensive than regular food items.
  • Real diet food does not taste as good as the original.
  • You cannot eat diet food in endless quantities and cease to worry about your calorie intake.
  • Most diet foods will have you feeling lighter -- but only in your wallet!
  • If you are a calorie-conscious person and plan to become or stay slim, you need not spend large sums of money on diet foods. You can eat healthy without overspending and here's how:

  • The first thing you need to do is make a habit of reading the labels on every food product you buy. A dessert that is advertised as 'completely sugar-free' may be using artificial low-calorie sweeteners to replace the sugar content, but what about the fat? Ask yourself -- is it really possible that a 'fat-free sponge cake' is completely devoid of fat? Usually such cakes don't contain butter or margarine, but they more than make up for with six to eight egg yolks, which can shoot your cholesterol levels through the roof!
  • Sometimes one bad ingredient is replaced by an even unhealthier substitute -- for instance, instead of normal cane sugar your product may be using liquid glucose, sucrose, fructose or any other form of sugar to appear sugar-free. This not only makes it more calorie-dense, but also more expensive.
  • So quit falling for the following gimmicks¬†and get practical:

  • Brown bread -- Do you know that 90 percent of the time a label that reads 'brown bread' actually means that you are paying extra for coloured white bread?
  • While normal sliced white bread costs between Rs 12 and Rs 15 per packet, brown bread can cost anywhere between Rs 25 and Rs 40. So read the label to see if the brown bread is actually whole-grain or made with at least 75 percent whole wheat flour and only then invest in it. Also, eating a slice or two of white bread in a day is not really such a big deal even if you are on a diet, provided you are eating sufficient whole grain foods throughout the rest of the day.

  • Diet colas -- You might think you're doing yourself a favour by sipping on a diet cola instead of a regular one whenever temptation takes over. While that is okay once in a while, drinking colas (diet or otherwise) regularly gets you addicted to them due to their caffeine content. They use artificial flavouring and their acid content is not good for your teeth and bones in the long run.
  • Moreover, a can of a diet cola costs about Rs 25, while a natural and much healthier option like coconut water costs only Rs 15 and comes with a side-benefit -- it's great for your skin! You can also up your dose of Vitamin C and refresh yourself with a glass of freshly-squeezed lime juice for just Rs 5. So replace those colas in your refrigerator with natural drinks that are cheaper and healthier and don't forget the cheapest and best drink of them all -- water.

  • Light mayonnaise: A 200 ml bottle of 'light mayonnaise' costs about Rs 100. One tablespoon of light mayo contains 50 calories, as compared to the 90 calories in regular mayo. But while the calorie counts differ, do not forget that you are taking in those 50 additional calories from the fat content in the light mayo anyway.
  • If you want to make a low-cal sandwich spread, tie up a large bowl of curds in a piece of cheese muslin cloth and leave it to hang overnight (or for two hours minimum) with a dish underneath. Once the whey has drained into the dish, add a little garlic, salt and pepper -- it will make an excellent low-calorie sandwich spread. If you refrigerate it, you can use the spread for at least 2 days.The cost? Rs 5.

  • Gelato: One scoop of low-fat Italian gelato can cost approximately anywhere between Rs 45 to Rs 100. While it's a tasty way to beat the heat once in a while, indulging in it all the time will cost you too much money and too many calories. I would like to reiterate once again that while these foods do contain less fat than the original product, they are definitely not fat-free!
  • A better, cheaper option? The ice-candy sticks available locally, each of which contain only about 40 calories and cost Rs 5 to Rs 10 each.

    In conclusion, if something really is making a difference to your health, it's okay to spend a little bit extra on it -- tetrapack milk, for instance, is less adulterated and more hygienic than what you buy from the local milkman. But weigh your options carefully before spending your hard-earned money on foods that don't make a dramatic difference to your calorie intake and still cost a lot more than regular products.

    Samreedhi Goel is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist. She runs her own training studio, Size Wise, and conducts fitness workshops.

    Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

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