Is there such thing as a free food?

What do you think of when I say “free food”? If you’re like me, you might imagine lavish conference buffets, three-course lunches with clients “on expenses”, or that box of gorgeous doughnuts that someone brought into the office …

But here, I’m thinking about “free foods” on diet plans – ones which “don’t count” as part of your daily calorie or Points intake. It’s one of dieting’s holy grails … being able to eat as much as you want of particular foods and still lose weight. Maybe colleagues on various diet plans have told you about their “free foods”, “0 points foods” or “unlimited foods”. But do these mythical foods really exist … and if so, what are they?

All-you-can-eat salad bar…

The diet plans which I used as a teenager often included “free” or “unlimited” options. These were typically vegetables (most of which are very low calorie for their weight) – higher-calorie veg such as peas and sweetcorn were excluded. I ate a giant salad with lunch every day because it was “free” – though it actually worked out to about 50 calories, once I’d included the dressing.

(For those with a sweet tooth, watermelon and sugar-free jelly were also included. Diet fizzy drinks like diet coke, and low-sugar squash, are also “free”.)

So, can you really eat as much salad and veg as you like and still lose weight? The answer is almost certainly yes (hurrah!). There’s about 20 calories in a carrot – even if you eat five at a sitting, that’s only 100 calories (the same as a small cookie). I’m particularly fond of carrots, but even I probably wouldn’t eat more than a couple at a time…

Weight Watchers’ 0 Points foods

I’ve never followed a Weight Watchers’ plan, and I know many of you won’t have either – but I bet you’ve seen products in the shops labelled with their branding and with a “points” value as well as a calorific one. Some products, such as salad dressings, have 0 points per serving – which really means they have so few calories that they’re not worth counting. (Most low-fat salad dressings are about 10-15 cals per serving.)

There are also “0 points” recipes for foods such as soup, salads, and ratatouille – anything which consists of mainly vegetables and seasonings, which all count as 0 points. Yes, you’ll probably still lose weight whilst eating as much as you like of these – but be warned that if you have a very big appetite, they do have some calories and eating serving after serving of a “0 point” recipe could slow your weight loss.

For example, when I added up the calories for the ingredients in this rather yummy-looking 0 points ratatouille, it comes out as about 70 calories per serving. Now, having that in addition to the rest of your daily allowance won’t make any difference … but eating four or five portions of it might!

(If you want to have a go at figuring out the calories in your favourite “0 points” recipe, see my instructions on calorie counting recipes and try my handy calorie counter spreadsheet.)

I can imagine someone doing Weight Watchers’ by eating chocolate bars and crisps (both high in Points) and filling up on “0 points” foods … and then wondering why they’re not losing weight. My advice, if you are on Weight Watchers, would be to keep an eye on how many times a day you’re eating “0 points” foods – if you’re having more than four or five, you might need to cut back!

Slimming World free foods

Slimming World, another huge chain of dieting clubs with associated plans and products, appears to be even more generous than Weight Watchers’ when it comes to free foods. Their guidance varies depending on whether you’re on a “red” day or a “green” day:

  • Red day “free foods” include most fruits and vegetables, white fish, lean meats and eggs.
  • Green day “free foods” include fruit and vegetables, grains, beans, pasta, tofu, and eggs.

This gives me pause for thought. These are all healthy and low-calorie options, but it’s possible to make a whole meal out of either the red day free foods or the green day free foods – and eat rather a lot of it!

For example, I could concoct a vegetable and bean chilli from:

  • Peppers
  • Onion
  • Courgette
  • Chillis
  • Beans

(200 calories total for an average sized serving).

…and serve that with unlimited rice (a grain), easily clocking up a meal of 500 calories. Depending on how big my appetite was, it wouldn’t be hard to eat 1,000 calories or more of “free foods” on Slimming World. And if your recommended daily calorie intake is low (if you’re a small woman like me, it probably is), you could unwittingly be eating so many “free foods” that you’re not losing weight.

So what foods can I eat unlimited quantities of?

If you want a big lunch or dinner without clocking up the calories (and without faffing around counting them), I’d recommend sticking with these:

  • Salad (watch that you use low-cal dressing, though)
  • Veg except for parsnips, peas, sweetcorn and potatoes
  • Sugar-free jelly
  • Melon, watermelon or strawberries

Be wary of colleagues who insist that you can eat as much pasta/fish/egg/etc for “free”. The calorie values might be low, but if you’re nearing the end of a weight loss campaign, a few hundred calories a day makes a lot of difference.

(Image above by scorchez.)

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