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May 10, 2004 -- It's Snackwells all over again: They were low-fat so we wolfed them down, ignoring the high calorie count. Now, low-carb products could likewise sabotage our weight loss efforts, according to a new report.

Low-carb versions of comfort foods -- bread, pasta, and ice cream -- often contain more fat and calories than regular versions, says the June issue of Consumer Reports.

According to the report, 930 low carb food products have been introduced to the U.S. food market in the last five years. The products are aimed at the growing number of Americans trying to lose weight by cutting carbs. But there's a catch.

"Many of the low-carb food products now flooding supermarkets may in fact be cheating -- consumers, that is -- by undermining the weight loss they hope to achieve," the report says. The FDA is scrambling to figure out how to address this issue.

Among their findings:

  • "Low-carb" labels are meaningless. In manufacturing low-carb products, sugars are replaced with "unnaturally high concentrations" of sugar alcohols, refined grains, and starches -- all of which are carbohydrates and contribute to caloric intake.
  • Because these "replacement carbs" move through the small intestine without getting absorbed, manufacturers subtract them from the carb content. That's the "net carbs" number listed on the product label.

  • However, that net carbs number is based on research done with whole foods (like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) -- which have a very different composition and calorie content.

The original low-carb weight loss programs -- Atkins and South Beach -- work when people restrict carb-laden, high-calorie foods like bread, pasta, rice, soft drinks, potato chips, cookies, and fruits, says the report.

"Indeed, the very lack of availability of low-carb junk food might have been a boon for low-carb dieters," the report says.

Here's what you can do to follow a low-carb diet and avoid the calorie pitfall:

  • Eat whole foods: For 40 grams of carbs a day, you could eat a half-cup of lentils, a cup of carrots, an orange, and a slice of light seven-grain bread -- for a total of 274 calories.
  • Those foods contain plenty of natural fiber and lots of vitamins and minerals. Getting those 40 grams from low-carb snack foods might give you 1,440 calories and few other nutrients.

  • Carefully read calorie and fat content on product labels.

Also, treat treats as treats, no matter what the carb count, says the report. Don't eat five low-carb chocolate bars in a single sitting. You wouldn't eat five regular chocolate bars at one time -- or, at least, you shouldn't if weight loss is your goal!

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