Originally created 09/19/00

Weighty decision



The frozen food sections of grocery stores are full of high-fat convenience foods, such as fish sticks, french fries and Hungry Man dinners.

But right beside them - in boxes labeled "Smart," "Healthy" and "Lean" - are tantalizing dishes such as baked chicken Florentine and French bread pizza - with as few as 5 grams of fat.

Frozen diet dinners contain fewer calories and less fat than standard frozen entrees, but are they as good for you as manufacturers want you to think?

Debbie Craddock, owner of Diet Center on Wrightsboro Road, says these meals are often high in sodium, which contributes to high blood pressure.

Weight Watchers' Smart Ones Basil Chicken has 790 milligrams of sodium, and Michelina's Chicken Primavera with spiral pasta has 840 milligrams.

That may not sound like much until you consider all the sources of hidden sodium in our lives.

"When you get up in the morning, brush your teeth, use a little mouthwash and eat a breakfast with eggs, toast and cereal, all those things have sodium in them," Ms. Craddock said. "Sodium is just not heart-healthy."

The Food and Nutrition Board recommends intake of 1,100 to 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day. One teaspoon of salt provides 2,300 milligrams.

Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that while not low in sodium, Healthy Choice meals are the best of the lot.

The government only allows the word "healthy" on meals that limit sodium to 600 milligrams, she said. Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine fall under the "healthy" umbrella with 600 or fewer milligrams of sodium.

Foods labeled low-sodium must have no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams of food.

Starr Hooks, a registered dietitian at the Medical College of Georgia, said that the sodium in most diet frozen dinners still falls within reasonable levels and that there are other benefits to the quick and easy meals.

"I think they are really good products because they are a controlled portion," Ms. Hooks said. "People know exactly what they are taking in."

Ms. Hooks said that controlled portions are beneficial because most Americans have trouble judging how much is too much.

The Augusta Chronicle compared five low-fat frozen dinners: Weight Watchers Smart Ones, Healthy Choice, Lean Cuisine Cafe Classics, Michelina's low-fat and Lean Cuisine Skillet Sensations.

None of the dinners had more than 300 calories. "That's fairly low-calorie," Ms. Hooks said.

But the lowest number may not be the best choice. If that is one-third of the day's food, you're consuming only 900 calories, which is too low even for dieters.

The standard for a woman trying to lose weight is 1,200 calories a day. For a man, it's 1,500 calories.

Dieters may need to supplement their low-calorie entree.

"I encourage my clients to add something," Ms. Hooks said. A salad, a piece of fruit or yogurt will add a few more calories and round out the meal.

Ms. Hooks said balancing meals is a key to successful weight loss.

Many people don't eat meals with the right amounts of dairy products and protein, fruits, vegetables and starches such as bread, cereals, rice and pastas.

Because foods are digested at different rates, it's important to eat a variety of foods when dieting. Meat, for example, will digest much more slowly than most carbohydrates.

Dieters may feel hungry soon after consuming some low-fat frozen entrees. For example, a pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce would have a lot of carbohydrates. Without meat sauce, it would also be low in protein and fat.

"You do want a little bit of fat and protein because it stays in your body," Ms. Hooks said. "If you only have 1 gram of fat, you will be hungry because it's not going to stay with you."

Ms. Hooks advises keeping daily fat intake to less than 30 percent of your total calorie consumption for the entire day. And you can't go by the percentages in the Nutrition Facts box on the back of most meals. These percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Ms. Hooks said that is more appropriate for men or young, very active women.

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com.