Ask LH: Are 'Diet' Microwave Dinners Actually Good For You?

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

Dear BU,

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 health 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 weight-loss 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!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    If you're super time-poor, you might want to look into a meal delivery option like Light 'n Easy. I haven't used it myself but I know a few people who have and they were actually really impressed by the quality of the food. It is, however, kind of expensive, but that's the price you pay for convenience I guess.

    I suppose it is better than fast food. Nothing better than homemade, where you can control the ingredients.

    Many of these frozen meals are made in New Zealand -- that alone is reason enough not to buy them. If you aren't aware, New Zealand has extremely lax food labelling laws where they don't have specify imported ingredients. So if you're fine with eating the cheapest meat, vegetables, and whatever else imported from China, then go ahead and buy them. If I remember correctly, Weight Watchers and Healthy Choice are made in New Zealand, while Lean Cuisine is Australian made.

    I think the microwave meals are fine with a few caveats. I remember seeing an article on the TV comparing them to "home made" versions which showed they stacked up well.

    Just make sure you don't eat just one favourite meal you like the taste of, eg: Spaghetti bol. Or like the author of the article says, you won't be getting a good blend of nutrients. So make sure you get variety and get ones with lots of veges. I don't really like the ones with beans because they're often the chewy, stringy beans. However these are actually good for you since they're high fibre so I force myself.

    One really good point in favour of the microwave meals (even the non-diet ones) is portion control. They're a really easy way of controlling just how much you eat because they are very limited in size. Assuming of course you can resist the urge to snack.

    I found home cooking was a problem because you'd try to buy a 200g piece of meat and they'd only be 230 or 250 or 500 so you wind up either messing around trying to trim it to a smaller size or you say "screw it" and just eat 250g instead of 200g. Same goes for veges, try getting a potato or carrot that's precisely the weight you want when you buy a bag of them. Or precisely measuring rice, or pasta, or mixed, frozen vegies.

    "At the very least, you should compliment the meals with homemade salads and vegetables"
    Bravo! Have a scrumptious salad, you gorgeous thing.

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