Let’s talk today about replacement foods. In our health-crazed culture, a major food trend is take a less nutrient-dense food, remove the “bad” macronutrients, then add the “good” ones back in. I call these replacement foods, because companies replace certain macronutrients for others. While we’re mostly over the fat-free craze, many of us are still worried about consuming too much fat. We’ve also replaced our fear of fat with the fear of sugar. And carbohydrates. So we then replace those macronutrients with fillers, whether it be artificial sweeteners, amino acids, powders, etc.
We make food really complicated. While there is nothing wrong with incorporating some gentle nutrition principles, we miss the whole point when we turn ourselves over to these replacement foods. Here are some common replacement foods and why they might be doing you more harm than good.
Powdered peanut butter
I once had a friend who loved powdered peanut butter. I’m pretty sure she ate it everyday. Her reason was that she felt uncontrollable around food – if she ate normal peanut butter, she felt she would binge and eat the whole jar. Powdered peanut butter (with less calories and fat) seemed to be a “safe” way to avoid a PB binge.
The problem with this logic was that she then started binging on other foods. Powdered peanut butter left her totally unsatisfied. Because her body was deprived, when she went to eat other foods, her body would prompt her to eat uncontrollably. Since she felt out of control around these other foods too, she cut them out, thus creating a cycle of restriction –> binge –> restriction.
All this to say, THIS BEHAVIOR IS TOTALLY NORMAL when you’re depriving yourself of what you really want. Our bodies have powerful biological and psychological mechanisms to override our self-imposed deprivation. We may be able to ignore it for awhile (some just days, some maybe a year or more), but eventually, your body will override the deprivation.
Halo Top and Arctic Zero
I tried Arctic Zero for the first time last year at FNCE and was appalled. The lady at the booth told me it was a great option for those “who can’t control themselves from not eating a whole pint of ice cream”. Her. exact. words. I hope as dietitians, we would be able to recognize that eating an entire pint of ice cream is more likely to result from a period of deprivation rather than a lack of self-control. But anyways.
The problem with replacement ice creams are that they are not ice cream. They take out the fat and sugar, add in protein, artificial sweeteners, and stabilizers, then slap the calorie count front and center on the label. Instead of encouraging customers to eat their dessert mindfully, savoring it and enjoying it (as food should be), they inadvertently encourage out-of-control binge behavior by encouraging customers to eat the entire pint, completely disregarding pleasure and satiety cues, just because it’s “healthy”.
I don’t eat ice cream because I need more protein and less sugar. I eat it because it brings me satisfaction. Feeling the need to eat an entire pint of ice cream likely means that there is some underlying deprivation going on. Replacement foods that encourage binge behavior are not going to be healthy for you in the long run, as you’ll likely start feeling out of control around other foods too.
disclaimer: if you have celiac disease, you can ignore this section. rice cakes are perfectly fine if you medically cannot consume other sources of carbohydrates!
So, rice cakes are pretty much just air. They have very few calories and very few carbohydrates. When trying to lose weight, I’ve seen a lot of people replace bread with rice cakes. We’re also terrified of gluten destroying us from the inside out, so rice cakes are often a go-to safe food.
Just like powdered peanut butter and replacement ice creams, rice cakes are essentially crunchy bread, without the calories, carbs, or gluten. Depriving yourself of carbohydrates will trigger a series of events within your body to get the carbs it needs. Without going into crazy detail – when the body is low on carbs, the hypothalamus releases neuropeptide Y (NPY), which causes you to crave and seek out carbohydrate-containing food. Once you eat carbs, NPY goes back down to normal. Your brain is literally starving for carbohydrates and will do whatever it needs to do to get them. You’re not addicted to sugar. Your brain literally needs it. NPY shows us that.
We must stop boiling down health to just “low-sugar”, “low-fat”, or “low-calorie”.
One of my biggest pet peeves in the nutrition world is that we boil down health to things that don’t really matter. You can go completely off sugar, but if that’s all you’re thinking about, it impairs your social relationships, you can’t function normally, you can’t sleep, you’re stressed out about food/life, and the list goes on… that’s not healthy. Instead of turning to these replacement foods, what would happen if you just ate regular food, in a mindful, appreciative way? Would you find more pleasure in your eating? Would that make you a healthier, more balanced person?