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Judging Nutrition : Imitation Foods Shortchange Dieter

June 20, 1985

Calorie-conscious dieters who buy imitation foods instead of products labeled "light" are eating mostly empty calories without the nutritional benefits of real food, according to Barbara Gilmartin, an RD and a Livermore dietitian with the Dairy Council of California.

"If the food label on a light cheese or yogurt lists milk or cheese as its first ingredient, it will supply calcium and protein and be lower in calories and fat--a wise choice for a dieter," Gilmartin said.

The Dietetic Choices

A dietetic cheese substitute, on the other hand, might list vegetable oil and casein (a milk protein) as its main ingredients. The consumer may save 20 calories per ounce, but will have to eat much more to meet nutrient requirements.

"The first ingredient on the food label--always the most abundant ingredient in the product--should be a real food, such as milk in the case of cheese," she said. "Then you know you're getting valuable nutrients and making the calories count."

To lose weight and stay healthy, a dieter needs to pack the most nutrition into the fewest calories, Gilmartin said.

Nutritive Values Count

The easiest way to do that is to eat the recommended number of servings from the four food groups: milk, meat, vegetables and fruits, breads and cereals.

"If a food doesn't fit into one of these groups, chances are it offers little more than extra calories to the diet," she said.

Reading labels is the best way to determine the nutrient density of a food. Number of servings, calories per serving, grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat per serving, and the percentages of the U. S. Recommended Daily Allowance for seven essential vitamins and minerals are listed on nutrition labels.

The best nutritional values are those foods that are high in nutrients when compared to the calories they contain.

When in doubt about low-calorie alternatives, a real food is usually the best bet for the money, Gilmartin said:

"Low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt, lean meat, fish and poultry, fruits and vegetables and whole grains are usually nutritionally superior to their dietetic or imitation counterparts."

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