By CANDICE CHOI
The Associated Press
Sunday, May 21, 2006; 11:35 PM
ALBANY, N.Y. -- On a mission to whip herself into shape, Kate Kowalczyk tossed out the junk food and stocked up on her idea of good-for-you staples like yogurt and low-fat cookies.
Despite her persistence, the 35 pounds she was trying to shake wouldn't budge.
It turns out those "healthy" foods were just as fattening as the chips and soda they replaced: The yogurt was filled with Reese's Pieces and the low-fat cookies were brimming with sugar that kept her hunger on razor's edge.
As concerns grow over rising obesity rates, so does confusion about the difference between what is healthy and what aids weight loss _ with many believing the two are interchangeable.
"That's why so many people just give in and so many diets fail," said Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Foods with wholesome images _ nuts, yogurt and granola _ are often consumed with abandon by dieters and end up sabotaging them, she said. Many brands of granola, for example, can be packed with up to 600 calories per cup and are loaded with more sugar than a cup of Cap'n Crunch.
While foods like granola and yogurt are certainly more nutritious than a bag of Cheetos, it's important to pick the lower-calorie brands that are not loaded with sugar or fat.
"When you have different choices and brands, just look for the ones with lower calories," Gerbstadt said.
Still, some weight watchers manage to convince themselves blueberry pie has its place in a diet _ simply because it features a fruit, said Marlene Clark, a registered dietitian at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles.
"Just because the basic thing is healthy doesn't mean it's a healthy dish," Clark said.
That's true for fish and vegetable dishes, too, which may have been prepared with loads of butter, cream, or breading, she said.
According to a survey by the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute, 59 percent of shoppers were trying to eat a healthier diet last year, up 14 percent from 2000. Forty-two percent of those shoppers said losing weight is a health goal that influences their purchases.
But confusion is rampant about what healthy means; the same survey found 20 percent of respondents didn't know what "organic" meant, except that it was "better for you." But even foods labeled organic or "natural" can have just as many calories.
An ounce of Pringles potato chips contains 160 calories, for example, while potato chips made by the organic food company Barbara's Bakery have 150 calories for the same serving size.
Frito Lay's Tostitos Natural Blue Corn Tortilla Chips and the brand's Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips each have 160 calories per serving.
Yet people seem to binge on "natural" snacks free of guilt, even though there is virtually no calorie difference in many instances, Clark said.
Although there are no figures tracking the growth of "natural" foods, health experts say they are seeing a growing abundance of such products riding on the coattails of the booming organic food market _ which grew 13 percent to $18.4 billion in 2004, according to FMI.
"It's all in the advertising _ you see this bright packaging that says it's good for you," said Kowalczyk, 34, of Troy, N.Y.
Since joining a weight-loss support group at work last month, Kowalczyk has learned to look beyond the veneer of "healthy" products and pay attention to calories.
"Rather than using all the marketing claims, the best thing to do is turn the product over and look at the nutritional facts to check the caloric content _ and pay attention to the serving size," Gerbstadt said.
When scaling back calories, Gerbstadt said it is important to get as many vitamins and nutrients as possible since less is being eaten. Making substitutions _ like an apple instead of applesauce _ is a good way to keep calories down and nutrition up, she said.
On the Net:
American Dietetic Association, http://www.eatright.org
Food and Drug Administration, http://www.fda.gov