Low-Fat Diet: Why Fat-Free Isn't Trouble-Free

If your goal is to keep cholesterol levels down or lose weight, "fat-free" isn't a magic bullet.

There are "fat-free," "low-fat," "light," and "reduced-fat" products available. Here's what those terms mean:

  • "Fat-free" foods must have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving.
  • "Low-fat" foods must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
  • "Reduced-fat" foods must have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of those foods.
  • "Light" foods must have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat.

The Trouble With Fat-Free

Sometimes "fat-free" is also, well, taste-free. And to make up for that, food makers tend to pour other ingredients -- especially sugar, flour, thickeners, and salt -- into the products. That can add calories.

Plus, if the foods aren't that appealing, they may be less satisfying, so you may eat too much of them.

Think Good Fat, Not Fat-Free

When it comes to health, the type of fat you eat can be more important than the amount of fat you eat.

The American Heart Association recommends keeping the amount of fat in your diet down to about 30%. But what's also important is that you're eating the healthier fats, sometimes called "good” fats.

"Good" fats include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

  • Monounsaturated fats (like canola and olive oils) are those that have been found to lower the LDL "bad cholesterol" in the bloodstream and raise the amount of HDL "good cholesterol." HDL appears to actually clear the "bad" types of cholesterol from the blood.
  • Polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon help lower LDL cholesterol.

Those don't include saturated fats, which are found in animal products (beef, pork, butter, and other full-fat dairy products), or artificial trans fats, found in partially hydrogenated oils.

Choose lean cuts of meat and fish, and low-fat dairy products, and eliminate trans fats from your diet as much as possible.

Tips for Buying Fat-Free Foods

All this isn't to say that fat-free products have no role in a heart-healthy diet. But to use them wisely, experts suggest that you:

Read the food labels. Before eating a fat-free food, make sure the product isn't loaded with sugar or additives, and that it's actually lower in calories than the regular version. Also check the serving size.

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Watch your servings. If you eat three servings of low-fat ice cream, at 3 grams of fat and 250 calories per serving, you're eating 9 grams of fat and 750 calories! Sometimes it's better to eat one serving of more satisfying whole-fat food and avoid the extra calories and sugar in the low-fat version.

Eat more vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. These give you nutrients and fiber to keep you feeling full longer, and they typically have fewer calories. They're also naturally low in fat. A baked potato is a better choice than “baked” potato chips. The whole potato has more nutrients, more fiber, and fewer calories. Oatmeal, vegetables, and fruit also have soluble fiber, which helps the body lower blood cholesterol. Your diet should have variety and be based on whole foods.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on October 02, 2014

Sources

SOURCES: 

Howard, B. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2006.

Hu, F. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1999.

International Food Information Council Foundation: "Facts and Fiction: The Skinny on Dietary Fat and Lower-Fat Foods," "Fats and Fat Replacers: Myths and Facts."

U.S. Food and Drug Association: "How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label."

National Institutes of Health: "Weight Loss and Nutrition: How Much Do You Really Know?"

Harvard School of Public Health: "Fats and Cholesterol -- The Good, The Bad, and The Healthy Diet."

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD, anesthesiologist, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center; medical director, Mobile Medical Corp.; author, Doctor’s Detox Diet: The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription, Nutronics, 2012.

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