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Wednesday
Dec142011

5 Reasons Frozen Meals Won't Help You Lose Weight

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Frozen meals have come a long way since the 1950s, at least in the way they are marketed. Unfortunately, most don’t provide much for quality nutrition. However, they seem to be a staple in many people’s nutrition plans, especially for those trying to manage their weight. Most of the premade meals found in your grocery store’s freezers pale in comparison to whole food meals. If you’re still buying these foods each week, consider the following five points. Here’s why it might be best to leave  frozen meals in the freezer.

1. Frozen meals are highly processed foods

The following list of ingredients comes from a baked chicken frozen meal, which is supposed to be baked chicken with stuffing and creamy white potatoes:

RED SKIN POTATOES, WATER, CHICKEN BREAST WITH RIB MEAT CARAMEL COLOR ADDED (COOKED CHICKEN BREAST WITH RIB MEAT, WATER, ISOLATED SOY PROTEIN, CITRUS FLOUR, SEASONING (DEHYDRATED CHICKEN BROTH, CHICKEN POWDER, FLAVOR, DISODIUM PHOSPHATE), POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, SUGAR, POTASSIUM AND SODIUM PHOSPHATES, SALT. GLAZED WITH: WATER, CARAMEL COLOR, MODIFIED CORN STARCH), BREAD CRUMBS (ENRICHED WHEAT FLOUR (ENRICHED WITH NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), NATURAL CANE SUGAR, SOYBEAN OIL, SEA SALT, YEAST, NATURAL FLAVOR), CREAM, ONIONS, 2% OR LESS OF CELERY, MODIFIED CORNSTARCH, DEHYDRATED SOUR CREAM (SOUR CREAM (CULTURED CREAM, NONFAT MILK)), CHICKEN FAT, SOYBEAN OIL, BLEACHED WHEAT FLOUR, SALT, SEASONING (AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, FLAVORS, WATER, CHICKEN POWDER, CHICKEN FAT, SUGAR, SODIUM LACTATE, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, LACTIC ACID), SPICES, SOUR CREAM FLAVOR (MALTODEXTRIN, SOUR CREAM SOLIDS, CULTURED BUTTERMILK, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, YEAST EXTRACT), POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, PARSLEY, TURKEY FLAVOR (FLAVOR, SALT, DRIED TURKEY STOCK, MALTODEXTRIN, SESAME OIL (CONTAINS SOY)), DEHYDRATED ONIONS, GARLIC PUREE, YEAST EXTRACT, SUGAR, CARAMEL COLOR, DEHYDRATED GARLIC, XANTHAN GUM, CARRAGEENAN WITH DEXTROSE, LACTIC ACID, CALCIUM LACTATE.

Remember, the meal is supposed to be chicken, stuffing and potatoes. That’s quite a list of ingredients for the meal! Notice that the chicken has added soy protein in it, meaning that “chicken-looking “ piece of meat isn’t 100% meat after all. The soy protein helps to increase the protein content of the meal so manufacturers don’t need to use as much actual chicken. Soy is a common allergen and most soy in our food is genetically modified. In addition, you can see the meat has added caramel color. The caramel color is added to make it more visually appealing, even though it’s not good for you. Soybean oil is found in a few spots on the list. Autolyzed yeast extract can cause migraines in some people. There are other ingredients we could pick out as well, but the point is, the meal is not just chicken, stuffing and potatoes. Unfortunately, we don’t truly know what eating most of these ingredients and chemicals do to our metabolism. For space, I only used one example above. If you have some frozen meals in your refrigerator, check the label. You might be surprised what you see when you look close.

2. Frozen Meals Are Limited In Protein

The meal above sounds like it would have enough protein in it since the meal is “baked chicken,” but it only provides 14 grams of protein. In addition, since part of the “chicken” is actually soy protein isolate, it’s uncertain how much of the protein actually comes from chicken. Many frozen meals are higher in carbohydrate, which is a much cheaper ingredient than meat. If you’re shorting yourself on protein at lunch or dinner, you’re probably going to be quite hungry within a couple hours. Finally, the quality of the protein is not close to the same as cooking a real piece of chicken, especially if it’s from a pasture-raised chicken.

3. Frozen meals are limited in quality fat

Many of the “weight loss” frozen meals are low in fat, still following the misguided approach to weight loss of following a low-fat diet. Fat is important for delaying hunger along with being critical for many functions in the body. The added fats in the meal example come from soybean oil and sesame oil – not good sources of fat. Don’t expect to find frozen meals with healthy options like olive oil, coconut oil, butter and other good fats. They’re too expensive.

4. Frozen meals are packaged

Bisphenol-A (BPA) has come under growing scrutiny. BPA is used in cans and plastic containers. It has been linked to health problems including endocrine problems, increased rates of obesity, nervous system problems, thyroid dysfunction, and heart disease. Some of the issues related to BPA could directly affect one’s ability to lose weight. That would be ironic if people are ingesting BPA through foods designed to help them lose weight. Unfortunately, food packages do not have to declare whether there is BPA or other questionable chemicals in them, so you won’t know if BPA is in what you’re eating.

5. Frozen meals try to control calories

If you’re buying these foods because they are labeled as 300 or 400 calorie meals, you probably won’t be successful long-term trying to control your weight this way. We’ve talked about calorie counting before in articles like More than Just Calories In, Calories Out and Food Is More Than Just Calories “In”. It can be painful to try to manage weight through calorie counting alone. Eating 1200 calories of processed foods might work for a little while, but eventually people get sick of the constant hunger and thoughts about food. Willpower can only last so long. Instead of processed frozen meals, eat a lot more non-starchy vegetables, quality protein like chicken, grass-fed beef, fish and eggs, and healthy fat like coconut oil, nuts, seeds, butter and fats naturally found in their protein source. If you’re short on time, have a protein shake, not a frozen meal. When you eat quality food, you don’t have to worry so much about counting calories. You’ll find you’re much more satisfied than when you rely on processed foods.

Summary

If you’re buying frozen meals out of convenience, it takes me less time to reheat leftovers in my glass containers than it takes to microwave a frozen meal. It usually takes one to two minutes to reheat my leftovers, rather than the five minutes it takes to cook most frozen meals, not to mention how much healthier the leftovers are. Stop buying frozen, processed “food” and start eating real food. Forget about the calories; eat what you should eat and you’ll find your weight comes off the way it should. No one ever became overweight from eating too many vegetables and too much protein.  

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (8)

This is very interesting; however, there is definitely room for debate. For example, Nestle's Optifast Full Meal Replacement Protocal for use in medical weight loss centers DOES allow for 1 fixed calorie meal replacement (of course they like lean cuisine because Nestle makes that, too) for patients at very high BMI. Perhaps the rules for somebody at lower BMI are different from those of a patient with morbid obesity?

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Ethan Lazarus

These are the ingredients for the Optifast Meal Replacement: Vanilla: total milk protein, fructose, maltodextrin, canola oil, soybean oil, potassium citrate, sodium citrate, sodium caseinate, sodium chloride, potassium phosphate dibasic, artificial flavour, mono and diglycerides, citric acid, magnesium oxide, choline bitartrate, aspartame*, ascorbic acid, ferrous sulfate, zinc sulfate, niacinamide, copper gluconate, manganese sulfate, d-calcium pantothenate, BHA/BHT (to preserve freshness), colour, thiamine hydrochloride, pyridoxine hydrochloride, Vitamin A palmitate, riboflavin, chromium acetate, Vitamin E acetate, folic acid, sodium molybdate, potassium iodide, sodium selenite, biotin, Vitamin D3, cyanocobalamin.

*aspartame contains phenylalanine

This isn't healthy for anyone, obese or not. Real food always wins! How does two shakes and a Lean Cuisine lead to health?

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

Vanessa:
While I agree with you that I prefer real food, many individuals with obesity have been unsuccessful in obesity treatment while still continuously exposed to what has essentially become an uncontrollable addiction. It is akin to asking the alcoholic to "drink less." Optifast happens to be a very well studied and accepted treatment for obesity in the medical community, with results that can rival bariatric surgery. When properly conducted, I've had many patients lose 50, 100 pounds and more, transition to real food, and keep it off. In large clinical trials, patients on optifast demonstrate remarkable and measurable health improvements with regards to not only weight loss, but blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.

In medical weight loss centers across the country, full meal replacement with Very Low Calorie Diet is considered the "gold standard" in medical obesity treatment, per the American Society of Bariatric Physicians annual conference just last month.

Other non-branded medical studies would concur with this. The largest of its type to look at this currently is Look AHEAD, a study of over 5000 type II diabetics examining the effects of intensive lifestyle intervention vs standard medical management of diabetes. The lifestyle management group wins hands down demonstrating far superior control of diabetes with modest weight loss. So far, the 3 key determinants of who successfully loses weight are:
1. Accountability - showing up for recommended visits
2. Exercise - 300 or more minutes of activity per week
3. Meal Replacements - fixed calorie (not optifast) - most weight loss is seen with 2 fixed calorie items per day.

So, again - I prefer to use real food whenever possible. But, the complicated condition of severe obesity requires a very individualized approach. This can include meal replacements or even surgery when necessary. When used appropriately, these are lifesaving interventions.

December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Ethan Lazarus

Dr Lazarus

Thank you for being so insightful to a real problem that this article seems to completely overlook. Sure, frozen meals are not ideal. Life isn't ideal. If I had the money to hire a chef, I could possibly achieve diet "perfection" as some people who write articles like this might recommend. I do not have a chef, and I am human, with hunger, cravings, and imperfect willpower, surrounded by a society that not only makes overeating easy, but is often constantly pushing a person towards it.

Where does the ultimate responsibility lie? With the individual of course. A fixed calorie replacement meal plan is a hell of a lot healthier than many alternatives, and at least is a step in the right direction for many people. The alcoholism comparison is great - too bad it's impossible to "quit" food, so the temptation is always there. When I cook for myself, "healthy" food or not, I tend to make too much. A full out binge is another even more horrifying matter. Even eating 2 or 3 frozen meals would be far healthier than a single mild food binge for me. It is a great tool in an imperfect world for us imperfect humans.

Also, the leftovers portion of the article is just plain funny to me. Having leftovers means you had time to cook originally, and also means that you had the willpower to not eat it all the first time. This sounds like a person who obviously hasn't struggled with food issues their whole life. I have a feeling this article is more for perfectionist who need to lose that "last 10lbs".

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterd

D - It is up to the individual, I agree wholeheartedly. You make some good points about what is all around us and yes we cannot quit food. But we do have to quit making awful choices. The whole reason frozen meals even exits is a debate in itself. But with regards to leftovers and cooking for yourself, I admit it's tough to not eat it all the first time but making just the smallest change can really help people out. For instance, just having plastic (or better yet glass) containers on hand as you make your meals is huge. Visual people really like it because they can see where there food is going to go when they are done cooking it and they can save it for the next day. Maybe I like food too much but I get a kick out of having all my food prepared for the week or at least the next few days. It's a sense of accomplishment.

And you said the T word: Time. We all have time. We have time to sleep, we have time to put a frozen meal in the microwave, we have time to cook meals. Trust me, my clients and I struggle with this everyday. Sometimes we just don't wanna. :) But if we just get up an extra 10-15mins early, you CAN make a good breakfast/lunch for yourself. Again, it's a whole debate that we can go on about but if you just go to bed a little earlier you can get up earlier and it's soo worth it!

The willpower to NOT eat the leftovers is another debate. :) But a quick tip is to eat your veggies first,Fill up on those! Then have your protein and then your starch if you're still hungry. Works for me as well as a lot of my clients!

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Those are great comments - thanks!

December 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Ethan Lazarus

Good points Michelle. Preparing meals can be as simple as throwing a few extra chicken breasts in the oven or on the grill on the weekend, and tossing some frozen vegetables in a container to take to work the next day. You can create a healthy, tasty meal in very little time. Paul Kriegler recently wrote an article on batch cooking (http://lifetime-weightloss.com/blog/2011/11/29/try-it-tuesday-batch-cooking.html) that has a couple easy meal ideas in it as well.

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

I was always a "non-cooking" kind of person. My wife loved to cook, so it worked out fine. She passed a way 6 years ago and so many things in life changed. Combined with my own health problems, I put on overt 25 lbs in the next four years.The portion issue certainly surfaced when I tried to cook, i ate all of what ever it was.

I then found Kashi dinners. First only available at he Coop, now my local Target carries their full line of products.They are just darn healthy for a frozen dinner.Check the specs for each product on their website. Their products are not specifically a diet food, but at 270-320 cals/ entree that does the job. They have many other products now, and I have liked all I've tried.
With my "Kashi" based plan (adding fruits and veggies) I feel I get a well balance healthy diet with some nice variation. With regular aerobic exercise and weights a couple ties a week, Iwill be celebrating one year and minus 19lbs at my physical in 2 weeks. I'm going to try for 5-10 more in the next 6-12 months....not going for perfect at 58, but will feel pretty darn good about myself if at 5'7 I make it tot 150lbs.

December 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris J.

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