Dubai Health Authority diet doughnuts
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A doughnut that’s acceptable as a diet food? No, we aren’t having a laugh. But if you were in the UK recently — or have read news filtering through — you’ll have taken notice of a fast food chain promoting a line of diet doughnuts. It isn’t April yet, so we know it’s not a joke. Nor is it fake news.

Here’s what happened: In November, the CEO of a UK bakery chain highlighted that its ring doughnuts contain fewer calories than its jam doughnuts, in comments at a childhood obesity conference where he said: “The ring doughnuts are between 200 and 300 calories, the ball doughnuts are between 300 and 400 calories.”

A company spokesperson later said that the chain had extended it’s their product range with lower-calorie options. “When it comes to sweet bakery, these are not diet products but if customers want to treat themselves then we offer more choices at lower calories,” the spokesperson told Yahoo News.

As consumers, we need to understand that the sole role of producers such as food chains is to sell! Every new product will be marketed with a fancy tagline that is aimed at grabbing your attention.

- Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at Dubai Health Authority

That didn’t stop news of the diet doughnuts from going viral, however. In the process, the incident drew attention to marketing that food manufacturers and fast-food chains indulge in. Words such as diet, natural, free from or lite on menus, packaging, or in promotional literature don’t necessarily indicate that the items are healthy.

Diet products

“Foods are labelled diet are not necessarily healthier options,” says Dr Osman El-Labban, Family Medicine Consultant and Head of the Family Medicine Department and Wellness Centre at Al Zahra Hospital Dubai. “Choosing a ring doughnut over a jam doughnut is a better option, but that doesn’t justify eating more of them or eating them on a regular basis. The reduction in calories in ring doughnuts is due to the hole and the lack of fillings, which means they have fewer calories.” Just because something has less calories, he says, doesn’t mean it’s Ahealthy.

Farheen Dhinda, Clinical Dietitian at Dubai Health Authority, explains the thinking behind the marketing. “As consumers, we need to understand that the sole role of producers such as food chains is to sell! Every new product will be marketed with a fancy tagline that is aimed at grabbing your attention. Such diet doughnuts just manipulate the calories by making a slightly smaller portion and comparing them with their own standard doughnut. So the question here is — is a medium-sized soft drink and fries healthier than a large sized? Well, you do the math!”

It isn’t enough to trust the words in large type on the front of the package, then. While these may include triggers such as diet or natural, it’s the nutritional label on the reverse of a package that reveals its contents’ true nature.

Ingredients in processed products

“As a dietitian and healthcare professional, what I’d love to see consumers do is flip the package and read the food label and decide for yourself instead,” Dinda says. “You will be surprised as to what you find, and you’ll be able to understand what goes into your packaged and processed food much better.”

Archana Baju, Clinical Dietician at Burjeel Hospital, says ingredients on packaged foods are generally listed in order of the weight of their main ingredients. “If sugars and oils are in the first few ingredients then those products are high in sugar and fat. Also remember to check portion sizes when you read calorie counts as manufacturers and food companies are very tricky. Calories or nutritional content are often listed per 100 grams or per serving.”

When it comes to eating out, some Google searching will throw up nutritional information on fast-food products. For example, a typical ring doughnut may clock in at 191 kilocalories, but it contains 13 grams of sugar, while a filled chocolate donut has 29 grams and 341 kilocalories.

But that doesn’t mean doughnuts — or other fast foods — are unacceptable. If you can’t always get to make your own snacks, it’s all right to indulge occasionally. Just follow a few rules of thumb. “Modern diets can definitely include such foods as occasional treats in moderation,” Baju says. “This includes all the sugars in breads, biscuits, chocolate, honey, maple syrup and sugar added to the tea and coffee, as well as hidden sugars in the packed/processed foods,” she says. “So a sugary doughnut weekly once or twice in moderation or to satisfy the sweet tooth in small portion should be fine.”

Dhinda’s advice is to steer clear from the packaged food aisles and go fresh. “Choose fresh ingredients, fruits and vegetables and make your own snacks. Trust me, it doesn’t take much time,” she says. Doing so also puts you in control and lets you decide what you’re eating — which as any nutritionist will tell you, is the best way to stick to a diet.