The skinny on diet foods and drinks

We explore some common foods vs.their ‘lighter’ counterparts to help you make informed choices

Walk down any supermarket aisle and you will see a vast array of products labelled as ‘diet’, ‘light’ or ‘fat- free’. With the amount of food marketing aimed at consumers today, you would be forgiven for thinking these products are superior to their neighbours. But this isn’t always case. Here we explore common foods and their ‘lighter’ counterparts to help you make the choice that is best for you. 

Diet or regular soft drinks

Diet or sugar- free drinks contain either artificial sweeteners like aspartame, or naturally- derived sweeteners like stevia. These substances are around 200 times sweeter than sugar. While the sweeteners don’t contain the kilojoules of sugar, emerging evidence is showing that this intensely sweet taste may ‘drive’ our brains to seek out more and more sweet food.  If you are trying to maintain or lose weight, then having sugar cravings will be counterproductive and you may compensate for the saved kilojoules by eating more sweet foods later. 

‘Real’ sugar soft drinks provide no nutritional value and come with a hefty amount of sugar and kilojoules per serve. Just one can of soft drink pushes you over the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of no more than 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day (the greatest benefits come when we stick to just 6 teaspoons of added sugar). 

Bottom line: It’s best to avoid both regular and diet soft drinks. Both contain preservatives, and the effects of real sugar and artificial sweeteners can be detrimental. These drinks are also carbonated and highy acidic,  which can cause dental erosion.

Diet sweet treats

Diet desserts, cookies, chocolate and ice creams are often too good to be true. They can come up short in the flavour and satisfaction department, which can drive us to eat more of these foods, cancelling out their benefit as a lower kilojoule product. 

To create products lower in kilojoules and with an acceptable taste and texture, a long list of less-than-natural ingredients and preservatives are sometimes used, which is never a good thing. 

Bottom line: Go for smaller portions of the real thing as an occasional treat. Savour each mouthful and don’t eat these foods while distracted with other tasks to avoid over-eating.  Use smaller plates, bowls and spoons when serving sweet treats.

Dairy 

Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt provide us with a rich source of bioavailable calcium. However, there is much debate on whether we should be consuming full fat or reduced fat versions.  

Milk

The type of milk you should choose will depend on a number of factors:

- Amount of milk you drink – There is a difference between drinking 1 litre a day or the odd drop in a cup of tea.  If it’s only a very small amount, then the type of milk you choose will have little effect on overall kilojoule and saturated fat intake. If you are a big milk drinker there may be benefits to swapping to reduced- fat milk or making sure you are not exceeding the 3 serves of dairy a day as recommended  by the Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013). 

- Are you watching your weight or saturated fat intake? Reduced- fat milk can help with this, however both varieties are good sources of filling protein which can help curb hunger.  

- Are you concerned about sugar? Reduced-fat and full cream milk have no ‘added sugars’ so both are good choices. The sugar found in milk comes from naturally occurring lactose that doesn’t affect blood sugar levels in a negative way.  The amount of lactose sugar in reduced- fat milk is marginally higher than full cream milk, however . This is only because reduced- fat milk has a few grams less fat, so the remaining volume of fluid is ever so slightly higher in lactose sugar. 

Yoghurts

- ‘Diet’ yoghurts, while lower in fat and kilojoules, often have artificial sweeteners and ingredients like inulin, which, while improving the yoghurt’s texture and creaminess, may  make you feel unsatisfied and leave a bitter aftertaste. Diet yoghurts are also not as high in gut- friendly probiotics. 

- Almost all flavoured yoghurts will have sugar added to them.  Some varieties can be super sweet and fall more into the ‘dessert’ category. Look for one with no more than 12g sugar/100g (about 5g of sugar/100g will be naturally occurring lactose).

- The best choice is plain, natural set yoghurt with no added sugars or flavours. Plain Greek-style yoghurts are also a good choice as they have higher protein content.  Traditional yoghurts are tart and sour, so adding some chopped fruit or cinnamon for flavour can help neutralise their sourness. 

Cheese

- Most varieties of cheese are energy/kilojoule dense and are best eaten in smaller amounts of around 40 grams

- Reduced- fat cheddar and melting cheeses are ideal for cutting back kilojoules without losing the texture or taste of the cheese. 

- Great choices for everyday snacks are ricotta or cottage cheese. These cheeses are higher in protein and lower in fat. Some manufacturers will have reduced- fat versions of these cheeses which are good choices as well. 

- When it comes to specialty gourmet cheeses, go for small amounts of sharp strong cheese. Quality over quantity is the key. 

Bottom Line: Choose mainly reduced- fat dairy products to reduce kilojoule and saturated fat intake. Avoid flavoured milks and yoghurts as these have can have high amounts of added sugar. 

NAQ Nutrition

NAQ Nutrition is a not-for-profit, non-government organisation. We aim to shape the health and wellbeing of our community through informed food choices. Food is life. Food is you. 

Healthy Food Healthy Planet is NAQ Nutrition’s community meal planner and recipe website. It aims to provide people with simple, healthy recipes that are tasty and won’t break the bank.