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

Supermarket shelves are full of "fat-free" products these days -- everything from cookies to juices (which didn't have fat in the first place) to half-and-half creamers. But if your goal is to keep cholesterol levels down, "fat free" isn't a magic bullet. In fact, health experts warn that "fat-free" foods may cause more problems than they purport to solve.

What's In a Label?

There are "fat-free," "low-fat," "light," and "reduced-fat" products available. What do these labels really mean? According to the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) these advertisements translate to the following:

  • "Fat-free" foods must have less than 0.5 grams 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 their traditional counterparts.  
  • "Light" foods must have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat.

The Trouble With Fat Free

The problem is that sometimes "fat free" is also, well, taste free. And to make up for that lack of taste, food manufacturers tend to pour other ingredients -- especially sugar, flour, thickeners and salt -- into the products. That may boost the calorie content. 

Plus, if the foods aren't that appealing, they may lead to overeating to make up for the lack of satisfaction.

Think Good Fat, Not Fat Free

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

In fact, the eight-year Women's Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial found that women who ate low-fat diets and those who didn't had nearly identical rates of heart attacks, strokes, and other forms of cardiovascular disease. Other studies have found no link between high-fat diets and other diseases, including cancer, and weight gain.

Keeping the amount of fat in your diet down to about 30% is still important, but what's also important is that you're eating the right kind of heart-healthy fats, the "good fats."

Good Fats Vs. Bad Fats

Cholesterol is essential to all functions in the body, especially hormones and nerve tissue. However, certain types of cholesterol, such as low-density lipoproteins or LDL, pose a health hazard. LDL cholesterol has been linked to atherosclerosis and heart disease. However, some fats are beneficial, such as high-density lipoproteins or HDL. 

"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. 

"Bad" fats include the saturated fats found in animal products (beef, pork, butter, and other full-fat dairy products). Even worse are trans fats, found in the hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils often used in commercial baked products, fast food, and processed foods. 

WebMD Medical Reference

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