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The False Friends of Dieting

Updated on March 18, 2013

Faux Amis

If you took French at some point you remember the faux amis. It means “false friends.”These are words that are the same (at least in spelling) in both English and French but have somewhat different meanings. This can result in hilarity, at least in the context of bored teenagers in a high school French class, if you try to use them as you would in English or back translate them. The faux amis of eating are the foods that people think are “diet” or healthy or not particularly calorie laden, but in reality are just about the opposite. I suspect everyone already knows these, but it’s worth repeating. It is not that the foods and such listed below are exactly bad for you, but they are not the healthy helpers that some people may think they are.

Salads Once you put on the cheese, the croutons, the oily sugar-laden chemical sludge known as “dressing”, the candied nuts, the tortilla strips, and the fried noodles; the average salad, especially if obtained from a restaurant or fast food place, is a calorie monster, a nutrient dense football with the calorie impact of two or three fast food hamburgers.

Fruit and fruit preparations There is nothing really horrible about fruit—it has some fiber and vitamins attached to it, but overall fruit gets something of an undeserved pass to the healthiness hall. Fruit is mostly sugar, which is not a bad thing. Sugar is our most important nutrient. If our brains were zombies, they would be moaning sugar... sugar... all the time, but it is what it is. And fruit is sugar.

Fruit juice Fruit juice is just sugar water. It’s always amused me that if you brought a carton of soda to your kid’s soccer game everyone would look at you askance and think you were a bad parent, but bring juice boxes and it’s all OK….

Smoothies Hopefully everyone can understand that this is just a milkshake—which brings me to…

Yogurt Yogurt in its base state is just curdled milk, and is no better or worse for you than a glass of same. However any yogurt that you get at one of those yogurt emporiums with the cute play-on-word names or initials has been tarted up with a boatload of sugar, chocolate, sugared fruits, cream, etc.—all excellent nutrients that we should make sure are part of our diet, but not to be ignored in terms of their impact on our nutritional intake.

Energy/power/protein/breakfast bars A story: One time I was amused to overhear a conversation while waiting in a check-out line, in which a breaded and sandaled young father boasted that he only gave his kids power bars—no nasty candy for them! For some reason I forwent my usual habit of offering unsolicited advice to total strangers in check-out lines and did not enter the conversation. If I had, I would have pointed out that many of these items ARE “candy bars” or cookies, if the definition were based on their ingredients.

“Something-free” It’s fat free! It’s sugar free! It’s lactose free! It’s gluten free! Two things for sure it ain’t; free-free and calorie free.

Muffins Oily softball-sized calorie bombs (mmm, now I’m hungry.) The good kind come with enhancements like chocolate chips and/or nuts, and the cheap ones feature fake “fruit” splodges made out of sugar and slime.

Bagels It’s bread for better or worse—the caveat that they tend to contain a lot of bread—sometimes a couple of glazed donuts worth.

Granola/muesli Energy (read calorie) dense trail mix without the fun things, like sesame sticks and candy-coated chocolates

Whole grains A carb is a carb is a carb.

Summary Chart

Salad=2 or 3 cheeseburgers


Fruit juice=sugar water


Yogurt=ice cream

Power/energy bar=candy bar/cookie


Bagel=donut (or 2)

Granola/muesli= trail mix

---free=full of something else

Whole grains =carbs

Now personally, I don’t know if I’d hate a day when I consumed cheeseburgers, sugar, milkshakes, candy bars, cupcakes, donuts, ice cream and trail mix, but I would not exactly consider it a “healthy” day. And really, if I had a choice between eating a bowl of ice cream and a bowl of something with a similar nutrition content that didn’t taste as good; I know what I’d do. But it’s all about aware choices. If you prefer yogurt, muffins and muesli, by all means eat them, just don’t kid yourself that these are “diet foods” or necessarily any “healthier” than some others.


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