Sunday, August 4, 2013

From Senna to Weight Watcher’s Dinners: A warning to dieters and disordered readers!

Yes, the list continues, as I promised. I admit it’s a strange compilation, yet these items are pulled together because of a common theme—they mess with your head. They mislead your thoughts and your body. And I want you to be on guard!

Self-serve frozen yogurt—It’s all the rage around here—frozen yogurt that has that tangy, original yogurt flavor—just like it’s meant to have. I think that tartness makes people think the yogurt is a free-for-all, with an appeal and halo similar to that of grapefruit; like if it’s tart or sour it must burn fat, right? (Wrong!)  Personally, I do love the flavor, but I don’t love how manipulated I feel when I get into the self-serve froyo shops. These upbeat establishments, all clean and bright and fresh-looking, offer two possible paper containers to use—large and crazy-large, 16 and 24 ounces, in most shops. And you can’t get a smaller dish (trust me—I’ve asked). Why does it matter, you ask? You can take just as much as you need, right?

Well, kind of. The supersized dishes make a reasonable size portion of froyo look pitifully small. So even though you know that it may be enough, you keep swirling it into the cup until it looks more appropriate, until you’ve served yourself perhaps a more generous amount than you need. Even knowing it, we still do it. (Check out Prof. Brian Wansink’s research to learn more about this phenomenon.) Fill the larger cup and you’ll take in more than a generous meal’s worth of calories.

Greek yogurt. It’s the protein thing again. With more than twice as much protein and less carbohydrate Greek style yogurts seem to feel ‘safer’—at least to those of you who have been brainwashed by the Atkins and Paleo diets. Greek yogurts are absolutely fine to include, but unless you are minding your carb intake for diabetes control, I’d suggest selecting the yogurt that you like best—a low-fat standard yogurt (referred to as European or Australian style by some brands now) or Greek—if you like yogurt at all! 

Kale and other super foods. So I like kale—really I do. I like it sautéed with a bit of olive oil and garlic, or used in place of spinach in my lemony lentil dish. But must I make a beverage out of it? Or make it into chips? Must we create 101 ways to eat kale? Not everything we eat must be a superfood. I like my pastries without kale, thank-you!

Juicing: I’m puzzled by the juicing craze—with or without the kale. Must we process our fruits and vegetables, removing their fiber? If you’re gonna have a juiced vegetable beverage, please don’t view it as a meal!

Yes, that's cheese, full fat, at my Mediterranean lunch!
Mediterranean misinformation: The so-called Mediterranean diet is used as a model for healthy eating—high in fiber, olive oil and nuts it’s good for your heart and your health. Walter Willet and others at Harvard even came up with a Mediterranean food pyramid. I’m all for whole grains, unrefined foods, and legumes, which it contains. And can I fault it for the fruits and veggies it includes? Certainly not.

But have you ever traveled to ‘the Mediterranean’—you know, Greece, Southern Italy, Spain and France, for instance? For the record, there’s not simply one way of eating. And the guidelines that American researchers are attributing as Mediterranean hardly fits with what I’ve seen in the Mediterranean. In Italy, they’re not eating whole grain Italian bread or whole-wheat pastas and in coastal France the bread is white baguette. The minimal dairy diet Willett and others created has little basis in the countries of the Mediterranean, where Greeks, Italians and others include yogurts and cheeses, (not low fat, I’ll add) for instance. And have you noticed the croissants in Provence—yes, the Mediterranean! 

Really, it's all about balance. Barely visible are the pastries (right rear)
at our self-prepared breakfast
My point? The so-called Mediterranean diet needs a name change. And while I endorse the core components of this way of eating, don’t feel like you’re unhealthy if you choose true Mediterranean dishes that use white pasta, a crusty white French bread, or some Parmigian or feta.

Senna and Dulcolax—gentle? Have you ever tried them? It doesn’t matter that Senna is natural—that it’s from a plant, that it grows—it ‘s a stimulant laxative that has its risks, as does Dulcolax. Think dependency. Think colostomy. Really. I’m not talking about periodic use when you’re suffering from constipation. But frequent or continued use of senna may make you dependent on laxatives and cause your bowels to lose their normal activity. 

"Laxatives that quickly produce a bowel movement, such as senna (Senokot) or bisacodyl (Dulcolax), are the most abused and dangerous. They stimulate the nerves in the colon.  This causes the muscles of the intestines to contract and push down the contents of the bowel. Over time, the laxatives keep the colon empty. The colon cannot send a signal so that a normal bowel movement can occur.  The muscles of the bowel become weakened because they are not being used.  The body gradually gets used to needing laxatives to produce a bowel movement."

If constipation is an issue, discuss with your MD safer types of laxatives—Miralax is one typically recommended. But constipation may be managed with dietary and fluid changes and by evaluating for an underlying cause.

Weight Watchers frozen dinners: Italics intentional, because the content of these frozen packages falls short of a dinner meal for anyone. ‘Feel fuller, longer with these delicious, satisfying meals’—that’s their tag line. They’ve got to be joking. With dinners ranging from 140-290 calories, how can anyone feel full longer?  Longer than when not eating? And adding the couple of grams of fiber will hardly do the trick to satisfy your nutrient needs! No wonder you don’t feel satisfied after eating this and other such frozen diet dinners, such as Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice.

My intern, Kristen Sementelli, a graduate student in nutrition, added a few of her favorites, too:

Hungry Girl: Hungry Girl puts together cookbooks full of recipes that are low calorie in order to “help” people cook meals and snacks that promote weight loss. Her book “Hungry Girl 200 Under 200” is a compilation of recipes under 200 calories. This includes breakfasts, lunches, dinner, and a variety of snacks. While this calorie range may be appropriate for snacks, so few calories are not only inadequate for dinner, they encourage overeating later in the day leading to unhealthy eating patterns and even weight gain. On top of that, the ingredients she uses are processed and artificial. There are dozens of reduced-fat, fat-free and sugar-free ingredients used, such as reduced-fat peanut butter, which happens to be another pet peeve of mine.

Reduced Fat Peanut Butter: Perhaps it sounds like a good alternative to regular peanut butter. The problem is that peanut butter is full of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the healthy fats that help lower cholesterol. The reduced fat PB only eliminates 0.5 g of saturated fat, but gets rid of 3.5 g of the healthy fats. To replace the fat taken out, additional sugar, salt, and other ingredients are added, so the calories remain the same. And frankly, it just doesn’t taste good.
(Personally (Lori here), I choose a natural peanut butter made from peanuts and salt. Just be sure to blend the oil on top—don’t dump it out—then refrigerate.)

Vegetable Chips: With claims like “one full serving of vegetables in every serving” it’s hard not to be tricked into thinking vegetable chips are better for you than potato chips. Looking objectively at the nutrition labels of Terra brand vegetable chips and Lay’s potato chips, there is little difference between the two. Lay’s chips have only 10 more calories per 1 oz serving, 1 extra gram of fat, and only .5 g more saturated fat. Terra vegetable chips have slightly less sodium and 2 extra grams of fiber, but Lay’s potato chips actually have one more gram of protein than the vegetable chips. There is no difference in vitamins and minerals, and the ingredient list is practically identical except for the choice of starchy vegetable for the base. If you enjoy vegetable chips it’s fine to have them in moderation. Just do not be tricked into thinking they are better for you than potato chips. 

(Lori: Oh, and did we forget that potatoes are vegetables? And that micromanaging your calorie intake will get you nowhere? Just saying...)

Spinach Wraps: You see the word spinach on the packing and think “this must be healthy.” Plus, it’s green! How could it not be? If you dare to look at the ingredients, you’ll see spinach isn’t even on there. There is only a small amount of spinach powder and blue and yellow food coloring. I compared FlatOut’s Garden Spinach Wrap with their whole wheat wrap to find that the whole wheat wrap is higher in fiber (by 5 grams!) and protein, at the same time as being lower in total fat and sodium. The garden spinach wrap is only 2% higher in vitamin A, calcium, and iron, which is not a big difference. Your best bet would be to stick with the whole wheat wrap, and maybe add some spinach inside.

(Lori: Or enjoy a sandwich on some delicious bread; I never did see the appeal of wraps except for with hummus.)

Thanks for letting us air. Hopefully, you’ll be a bit more critical when exposed to product claims, and you’ll start to choose foods you enjoy, too.

Since this is getting so long, I’ll leave you to figure it out: what’s my beef with light soy milk and gelato. Please share you own pet peeves, too!


  1. The light soya milk I've seen in UK supermarkets seems to have fewer calories simply by virtue of containing less soya altogether - and therefore less protein. The fat in soya milk is primarily unsaturated, anyway, so I see no particular reason to avoid it.

    The protein:calorie ratio of things like almond milk usually seems much lower than in whole almonds as well: about 1g protein per 300 calories almond milk compared to about 13g per 300 calories in raw whole almonds.

    1. Bravo! You're completely right!
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I'm giving my cat Miralax these days. Seems to be helping him with his issues. I'll stay away from it. I've got colitis, I don't need Miralax. :)

  3. I hate the frozen diet meals. The meat in them is usually crappy quality and there are onions in EVERYTHING. Can you tell I hate onions? I also hate the low fat and or sugar free cookies and desserts. What is the point? I remember my mom used to eat these low fat, sugar free cookies that seriously tasted like what you would think a dog biscuit would taste like. When I gagged and spit it out she told me that you get used to the flavor. Why would you want to?

  4. I get so much out of your posts and couldn't agree more with these latest ones. Thank you, thank you, for normalizing (re-normalizing?) normal food and normal eating! As a mom, I am also doing my best to give these attitudes to my family. My challenge, besides the fact that I deal with my own food issues, is an overeating spouse who likes to bring the child along on his path. Would you ever address anything like that? How we with food issues deal with being responsible in our families for being the provider of nutrition and shaper, to some degree, of the attitudes there? I always look forward to your posts! Thank you!

  5. What's the deal with gelato?

    Thanks for the informative post.

    1. yes I occasionally loooove some gelato.

    2. It's frequent false comments like this one: "With a third less fat than regular ice cream, Talenti gelato is one indulgence you can feel good about." Only thing is, it's simply not true.
      These yummy gelatos are promoted as lighter, lower fat, healthier, but the labels make clear that that is anything but true. I love gelato--the creamy texture and intensity of flavor--and so a small amount often satisfies. Just don't be tricked into thinking you should have more because it's somehow lighter.

    3. Ah! Thank you! My only exposure has been in gelato shops and I just assumed it was no different than other ice cream, therefore equally off limits. Same with frozen yogurt. I'm done with that kind of thinking and appreciate your blog in the moments that becoming intuitive becomes too scary. You are making a difference in my life.

    4. Actually, none of them are off limits, in my view. Not even for dinner ; )

      But if you're going to have it, enjoy it. Eat it mindfully. And better to eat it when you are a bit hungry--not starving--and not stuffed--but when you'll be able to appreciate it with all your senses!


  6. FWIW, I actually like to use sugar free pudding as the base for banana pudding as the vanilla wafers and whipped topping have enough sugar already.

    1. I'm not faulting sugar free products if they don't misrepresent what they are. Sugar free cookies, personally, I wouldn't feed to my dog. And they DO mislead patients--while they are SF, they still contain carbohydrate, which for those trying to manage their diabetes is necessary to be mindful of. It's not the sugar, but the total carbohydrate that impacts blood glucose levels. And for the record, most all of us do just fine with carbohydrate at each and every meal and snack!

    2. I totally agree. It's also a matter of convenience since we drink skim milk and the regular pudding won't set up properly without 2% milk. I guess I just meant that SF products have their place. Love the post!

  7. "Clean" eating. Enough said.

    No-one says the word 'diet' anymore. It's all about "eating clean".

    This wording drives me crazy because it implies there's foods that are "dirty". And that realllllyyy messes with our minds.

    Any thoughts on the 'clean eating', dairy free, meat free, wheat free, sugar free, organic, superfood-enriched trends running around right now?

    1. Agreed! I hate the 'clean' description for the same reason. And focusing on 'free' only makes us less free--more burdened--by the absurd ruls.

  8. High school skinny, the five two diet, dr oz, garcinia cambogia, green tea, etc etc etc, the doctors,