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updated 6/5/2008 8:46:36 PM ET 2008-06-06T00:46:36

Limit consumption of energy-dense foods. That’s the advice from the latest international report on diet and cancer published by the American Institute for Cancer Research. The recommendation — aimed at promoting weight control — was included in the cancer-focused report because of the convincing link between overweight and several types of cancer.

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The “energy-dense food” category referenced in the report includes foods that are concentrated in calories, usually because they are high in fat, processed carbohydrates and/or added sugar. Note, however, that some energy-dense foods — namely, nuts and seeds — are relatively unprocessed and supply many beneficial nutrients. These foods are not linked to weight gain when consumed moderately as part of a healthy diet.

Most Americans, however, are choosing the other kinds of energy-dense foods — those that the research links to an increased chance of weight gain, overweight and obesity. One popular consumer solution: Choosing reduced-fat or fat-free forms of the same foods. But these lower-fat options aren’t always lower in calories, particularly when they are consumed in jumbo portions.

A typical blueberry muffin purchased before the “super-sizing” of America’s food supply would have measured less than three inches in diameter and might have contained about 250 calories. Today, however, many bakeries and coffee shops serve muffins with twice the calories of the old-fashioned size. Even if a consumer chooses a low fat version (potentially dropping the fat content from 20 grams down to 2 grams), the muffin would still likely contain about 290 to 340 calories. In other words, the low fat, super-sized muffin is still higher in calories than the smaller, full-fat version. (Note that although low-fat muffins are no longer high-fat foods, their high-sugar content — up to eight teaspoons of sugar per muffin – keeps these foods in the energy-dense category.)

Reduced-fat versions of foods that start off as super-rich products can also be misleading. For example, a one-cup portion of conventional vanilla ice cream will cost you roughly 270 calories. Light versions, which trim the fat from 14 grams to 3 to 5 grams, can drop the calories to about 210 for the same portion size. However, decadent gourmet ice creams can contain from 480 to 580 calories per cup of vanilla ice cream. The light version of these products only reduces fat to the level of the conventional “full fat” ice cream. Because sugar content remains high, the 350 to 400 calories in gourmet light ice cream are often substantially higher than the regular version of conventional varieties.

Reduced-fat peanut butter is another example. Although lower in fat than regular peanut butter, with added sugar, starches and/or soy protein, the calories remain the same.

Not to discount all reduced-fat or low fat versions of foods — many do save calories. When purchasing cheese, milk and meat, for example, choosing the lower-fat products means less cholesterol-raising saturated fat and fewer calories. And if you just can’t live with fat-free cheese, even saving 20 calories per ounce with reduced-fat cheese can still be worthwhile.

The bottom line: By substituting a few lower-fat versions for the higher-fat foods you eat frequently, you can save calories, which can add up to make weight control easier. The key is to make those switches without simultaneously doubling your portion size or choosing the “light” version of a product richer than something you would normally choose.

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