When Zero Calories Does Not Equal Zero Calories

“I can eat as much of that candy as I want…it’s sugar-free and fat-free!” If this sounds too good to be true, then of course it is!  Eating too much of anything, especially at one time can potentially cause a myriad of problems. This can include immediate regrets such as a stomach ache, dumping syndrome, bloating and diarrhea to longer term effects like weight gain. So, don’t be fooled into thinking a packaged food is good for you just because it makes specific “health” claims. Be wary of phrases such as sugar-free, fat-free and even calorie-free. These foods may technically be all of those things, but never are they calorie free (or even healthy), especially when consumed in amounts larger than a serving size.

Before weight loss surgery, there is no doubt you either ignored the portion size listed on a package or it just gave you a good laugh.  Who really eats that small amount of food listed on the package?  Once you have your surgery though, lo and behold…this is your new, comfortable serving size!  Just because you had weight loss surgery, doesn’t mean that calories don’t count. In fact, they count more than ever. Chew on this:  as you lose weight, your body requires fewer calories to maintain that lower weight.  So, if you continue to eat high calorie foods and/or “graze” on a regular basis, those calories can really add up, hindering weight loss.  Even after weight loss surgery, calories and portion size still count!

A packaged food can legally make specific calorie claims.  They include:

  • Calorie-free, no calories, zero calories: less than 5 calories/serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 or less calories/serving
  • Reduced or fewer calories: 25% or less calories/serving than regular product
  • Light: 1/3 fewer calories

Consider some of these foods:

  • Cooking sprays and butter sprays: These sprays can legally claim zero calories and fat if you use 1 spray (1/3 of a second) at a time.  Sounds great, right?  But, 1 ounce of one of the well known cooking sprays has 222 calories and over 20 grams of fat!  These sprays are mostly made from butter and oils – how can’t they have calories?
  • Sugar-free candy: Although these candies may be sugar-free, they are definitely not fat or calorie-free.  In fact, the sugar-free versions have almost as many calories as the regular ones. For example,four fun-size Nestle Sugar Free Crunch bars contain 170 calories, while 3 regular fun size ones have 180 calories.  Sugar-free York Peppermint Patties contain 120 calories, while the regular version contains 140 calories. Many chocolates and chocolate bars contain ingredients, such as peanuts and fats that add to the calorie count.

Did you ever notice that when you eat foods like sugar-free candy or certain protein bars, your stomach starts to speak to you?  Bloating, gas, diarrhea? This isn’t dumping syndrome…it could be the result of sugar alcohols.  These added sweeteners contain fewer calories than sugar, add texture to foods and retain moisture well. Look for ingredients that end in – ol (mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol) and you can identify sugar alcohols. The potential resulting laxative effect of sugar alcohols, not to mention the excessive calories in most of these foods, is not worth including in your eating plan.

Use caution! Some foods may seem low in calories, fat or sugar, but if eaten in several servings either at one time or during the day, it all adds up. Including the occasional treat can be part of a healthy eating plan, but don’t think that gives you the license to eat as much as you want.  Remember, it’s not just the large meals that add to your daily calories, it’s all of those seemingly innocent bites, licks and tastes that add up.

If only zero calories really meant zero calories!



Written By Michele Lubin, MS, RD, CDN – nutritionist/dietician at Winthrop Bariatrics

Our Surgical Weight Loss Program and Bariatric Surgery Center's mission is to deliver safe and effective surgical solutions with a compassionate touch. Our bariatric program is operated by NYU Langone Long Island Surgical Associates, P.C., a network of leading physicians and surgeons that provide comprehensive care for patients.

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