What is the all-natural equivalent of my lunchtime peanut butter energy bar? Disturbingly, my next adviser finds it hard to say. "Energy bars are not a whole lot different from candy bars," says Lisa Young, PhD, nutritionist and author of The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss. "You're better off having peanut butter on a banana." Easy enough. Young is more forgiving about my cheddar-flavored rice cakes, but I'm going for the real deal. I buy some whole grain crackers and, exercising my newfound freedom, a wedge of Spanish sheep's milk cheese rather than cheddar (which is what the cheese flavor in faux food invariably is). The toasted-grain texture of the cracker and sharp pungency of the cheese make the rice cakes taste like Styrofoam peanuts.
It's a lot more difficult to give up my diet lemonade, which, I have to admit, I buy by the case. Young says there's nothing terrible about these drinks—as long as I'm getting enough water—but since my mission this month is to try to live without diet products, she suggests substituting flavored seltzer. "You can tell people to drink water until you're blue in the face, but they won't," she says. "Flavored seltzer has the bubbles. It's a little more appealing." I run out and pick up lemon-lime seltzer. It does have a nice zing, but I'm missing the sweetness of my diet drink. I remember that Young also likes sparkling water mixed with juice, so I go back to the store and buy clementine, pomegranate, and cherry juices. They're a tad pricey, but since I'm just throwing in a few splashes, I figure it's worth the extra money. A clementine cocktail is better than seltzer alone: bubbly and fresh tasting.
After dinner one night, I make my usual journey outside to get a treat (I've never been able to keep desserts in the house). This time I resist the temptation to amble down the block to a local storefront for a large cup of a low-fat pecan praline dairy concoction that isn't frozen yogurt and isn't quite ice cream but is the addiction of most of my friends here on the East Coast. Instead I go to a deli and buy something I haven't had in at least a year: vanilla swiss almond ice cream. I've been perfectly happy with the low-fat stuff, which I think is creamy and satisfying. I cautiously dig in.
Cue choir music!
That velvety texture and pure, clear vanilla flavor—it's heaven in a bowl. Young says there is a place for both high and low frozen treats. "I happen to like the low-cal varieties," she says, "but I don't buy the jumbo size in a waffle cone with all the toppings, which could easily have 500 to 600 calories." What alarms her is when I tell her I occasionally have a large-size serving in place of a meal. (What alarms me is that I've been telling myself that that particular size with all the toppings has negligible calories.)
"I see that kind of substitution all the time—it's a big problem with teenagers and adults who have low-cal varieties for lunch and dinner and develop an iron deficiency," says Young. While I don't think she means I can use real ice cream to prevent iron deficiency, I suddenly realize that barely any of the diet foods I eat provide any discernible vitamins or minerals. I used to think if I had a multivitamin, my nutritional needs were pretty much covered, but here's a crazy idea: Maybe my nutrients could actually come from my food?