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Grocery Savvy: Calories Count

For dieters, the number of calories per serving is the all-important number.

Beyond Calories: Reading the Ingredient List

Food manufacturers know that more and more consumers read labels. Many try to use that fact to their advantage. “All kinds of claims are being made on packages -- that they’re fat-free, carb-free, sugar-free or low in calories,” says Talmadge. “Studies have shown that consumers, especially women, really respond to these messages. If they see a muffin advertised as fat-free, they buy it without another thought.”

The trouble is, that fat-free muffin may be loaded with sugar. So in addition to looking at the calories and serving size, Katherine advises dieters to look at the ingredient list. People who are counting calories need to pay especially close attention, since restricting calories makes it that much more difficult to get all the nutrients you need.

“Dieters really need to focus on getting a lot of bang for their buck in food. That means choosing foods that are nutrient dense,” says Farrell. If a food contains grain products, for example, make sure they’re whole grains by looking at the ingredient list. Check fiber content. Foods high in fiber tend to be rich in nutrients. Generally, the more whole foods a product contains -- nuts, raisins, or whole grains, for instance -- the more nutritious it is.

In contrast, foods that have sugars or corn sweeteners high in the list of ingredients are going to be low in nutrients and usually high in calories, says Farrell. What’s more, foods with highly refined carbohydrates, including sugar and white flour, are digested quickly, sending blood sugars spiking and then falling -- and leaving you hungry soon after a meal or snack. Avoid them as much as possible. That’s especially true for sweetened beverages, Farrell adds. Liquid calories are thought to “sneak” past appetite sensors, adding calories without satisfying your hunger.

Don’t Be Fooled by So-Called Health Foods

Foods like granola bars and granola cereals may look healthy -- and in many ways they are. But they can also be loaded with calories. Like Kim Clarkson, many dieters get lulled into thinking they can eat as much as they want. “So don’t simply assume that a food that’s healthy is low in calories,” says Tallmadge. “Always check the label.”

To be sure, there are foods so nutritious and so low in calories that you can pretty much eat as much as you want without bothering to count calories. But most of them don’t come with nutrition labels -- foods like fresh celery stalks, salad greens, carrots, jicama, roasted sweet peppers, and most fruits and vegetables.

That’s the irony of food labeling, nutritionists say. While the nutrition facts panels on foods are helpful in choosing prepared and packaged items, the essential key to a healthy diet and to losing weight is favoring foods without labels -- everything on display in the produce aisle.

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Reviewed on June 26, 2009

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