Dear Lifehacker, I've decided I want to get healthier and shed some excess weight. I'm pretty time-poor, so I'll be mainly relying on diet microwave dinners from the supermarket (Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, McCain Healthy Choice, etc.) My question is: will these products actually help me lose weight? And are they considered healthy? Thanks! Bikini Unready
Microwave picture from Shutterstock
When it comes to food, Australia's consumer protection laws are thankfully quite robust. Indeed, numerous manufacturers have been slapped with sizable penalties for falsely implying that their products are organic , Australian made, or produced in a specific region.
These are relatively minor infractions compared to making bogus diet claims. Food companies therefore tend to be quite careful in this area; especially if weight loss is the primary purpose of the product.
So you can usually rest assured that a diet microwave dinner will have fewer kilojoules than an equivalent meal from the non-diet section. With that said, there are still some caveats to be mindful of.
You should always pay careful attention to the words used in advertisements and on packaging. Not everything in the diet food section is equal, and some products use cheeky phrasing that borders on false advertising. As a recent CHOICE study explained:
[Some] brands don't use the words "diet" or "weight loss", but their packaging does display terms such as "guilt-free", "lean" [and] "balanced", which are likely to pique the interest of dieters.
Similarly, some diet dinners include a surprising amount of sugar and refined starches in place of saturated fat. This allows them to be marketed as "low fat" even though the dietary benefits are questionable.
Naturally, you also need to use common sense when making your meal selections. For example, a "diet" chicken parmigiana might be better for you than the non-diet version, but it's still going to be a slab of salty, processed chicken covered in sauce. If you're serious about dieting, you might want to choose a less rich option that contains more vegetables and fewer kilojoules.
So do any of these meals actually constitute a healthy, complete diet? That largely depends on the product in question. As we have noted in the past, foods that promotes weight loss are not automatically good for you, even if they do work as advertised.
It all comes down to the amount of protein, nutrients and vitamins the product contains. Diet microwave dinners are sometimes high in sodium and other preservatives to help enhance the flavour. As you'd expect, this can counteract the nutrition you receive from the meal.
A diet that's too high in salt can lead to everything from high blood pressure to stomach cancer. (We'd call that pretty unhealthy!) According to the Heart Foundation, you should be sticking to meals that contain approximately 120mg of sodium per 100g.
A diet meal that is low in nutritional value is also unlikely to fill you up. This means you'll be more likely to snack during the day, which could lead to a higher kilojoule intake than if you'd just stuck to a fuller lunch. The same danger applies to the meagre serving size that diet meals typically come in.
As with any manufactured food product, it's important to carefully scrutinise the nutrition panel if you want to stay fit and healthy. In addition to the kilojoule count, be sure to pay attention to the sugars, fats, sodium and protein, as well as how this data relates to the overall portion size.
In conclusion, highly processed supermarket diet foods probably shouldn't be your main source of sustenance. At the very least, you should compliment the meals with homemade salads and vegetables to ensure you're getting your daily nutritional requirements. Good luck!
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