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The Lighter Side

Por Eleazar Lara-Pantin, MD, MSc.* -

You see them everywhere in the supermarket: reduced-fat cookies, light ice cream, low-sugar marmalade, and fat-free yogurt. But what are they really?

According to food labeling regulations, the terms "light" or "lite" may be used when a component in a particular food has been reduced below the levels normally found in the original version. If a diet soda contains less sugar than what a regular soda normally does, it can be labeled light or lite. The same applies to margarine that's made with less fat than the original margarine. Light/lite also applies to products like ice cream with reduced sugar and fat.

The terms "low" and "free" are variations of the same idea. The first term indicates a lower content of a certain component, such as low-sugar and low-fat. The second term refers to the complete, or almost complete, elimination of the component, such as sugar-free and fat-free.

It may seem like eating these foods is a requirement for anyone who wants to reduce his/her daily calorie intake, or certain nutrients like sugar or fat. Also, there's a lot of confusion because several products are available in light and fat-free versions (like salad dressings), or in light and low-sugar versions (like marmalades and jellies).

Below is an example of the regular, light, and fat-free versions of the same product. Note the differences in total calories as well as fat and carbohydrate content:

Ranch salad dressing

 Type          Calories (tablespoons)   

 Fat (grams)

 Regular   150     14           4
 Light  80  7  4
 Fat Free  30  0

In light of these differences, along with the amazing variety of products available at the supermarket, which products are the best? Here are some pointers to help you navigate the aisles:
  • Take time to read food labels. They always contain valuable information and provide a complete nutritional perspective of the product.
  • If you are concerned about gaining weight, choose the version of the product that provides the least amount of calories. Remember that the calorie count always refers to one serving and that the size of the serving varies from product to product.
  • If you are diabetic or concerned about sugar, reduce your sugar intake. Note that the label may refer to sugar as sugar or as carbohydrates.
  • If it's triglycerides, cholesterol, or heart disease you're concerned with, choose products that have a lower content of fat.
  • When selecting a "diet" product, watch out for the taste since it can be very different from the original version. If you definitely don’t like the "diet" version and decide to buy the regular product, consume it in moderation.

Dr. Lara-Pantin, a nutrition specialist, is Vice President of Product Development for DrTango, Inc.


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