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 limiting saturated and trans fats in your diet.
But what's also important is that you're eating the healthier fats, sometimes called "good” fats. LDL is considered "bad cholesterol." HDL appears to actually clear the "bad" types of cholesterol from the blood.
"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 in the bloodstream.
- 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. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats make up no more than 6% of your daily calorie intake.
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.
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 medium baked potato is a better choice than “baked” potato chips (as long as you leave off the butter, cheese and sour cream!). 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.