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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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