Is Fat Free Really Better for You?
I recently read an article from Food and Healing that suggests that fat free foods are a bad idea. The article discusses the fact that our bodies need healthy fats for survival, and that in many cases, the substitutions for ingredients in fat free foods are generally unnatural and processed and ultimately unhealthy, despite the fact that they have low or no fat.
I found this article interesting in light of the fact that almost EVERYTHING on store shelves has a low fat or fat free alternative. Not to mention, many “lightened up” and “skinny” recipes use fat free versions of such cooking items as sour cream, cheese, tortillas, cream based soups…the list goes on and on.
I began to wonder if the low fat and fat free foods really were better for you, and if a list of ingredients I can’t pronounce have been added to make up for the fat that was removed. So, I set out to do a little field research on some of the popular food items, and armed with my smartphone, took pictures of the nutritional lists to compare the original version to its reduced fat or fat free counterpart. People looked at me like I was losing my mind in the store but my work was all in the name of research, so I didn’t mind.
The first thing I noticed as I started to compare some of the items was the monumental claims of fat free-ness that some products stated. Looking at packaging I see things like ”30% less fat than the original!” “70% less fat than the regular brand!!” “94% fat free!!” That sounds pretty amazingly fat free, right? Take a look at the nutritional information, and some of those claims don’t sound quite so amazing. Take one popular brand of cookies who claimed that their reduced fat version of chocolate chip cookies had “25% less fat” than the original. 25% less fat translates into .5 gram less fat per serving. Another brand that makes a popular snack crackers claimed to have 30% less fat than the original, yet the difference was only 1.5 grams per serving. When you read the fine print, you often find that the fat free amazing-ness is not so amazing after all.
For more information on how the FDA determines low fat and fat free, see this article from WebMD.
Another interesting thing I noticed in comparing low fat/fat free vs. original brands were the calories. In almost every product I compared, the calorie difference was minimal; in most cases no more than 10-20 calories. So even though these products were reduced fat, they still had relatively the same amount of calories. Most nutritionists will agree that the best way to lose weight is by reducing your calorie intake. Calories are truly the foundation of weight loss; burn more calories than you’re taking in and you’re more likely to lose weight. So if your goal is weight loss, fat free or reduced fat options may not be helping much. Not to mention, many experts believe that low fat/fat free foods actually contribute to eating larger portion sizes. This article from Cornell University explains the theory in more detail.
Then there’s the issue of ingredients. Do makers of low fat and fat free foods add more sugar or preservatives to make up for the fat that’s being removed? In many cases, the answer is yes. Take yogurt, for example. Original Yoplait yogurt (which has 170 calories and 1/5 grams of fat), has 5 grams of sugar. The fat free version of Yoplait (which has 90 calories and zero fat) has a whopping 10 grams of sugar! Given that the recommended maximum amount of sugar per day is roughly30 grams, you’re getting over 30% of your recommended sugar intake in ONE container of yogurt!
One product that didn’t seem to have a lot of extra ingredients or sugar was snack crackers. I compared several Nabisco and Kraft brands of crackers, and while the reduced fat options didn’t have a big difference in the grams of fat or calories, there also wasn’t extra sugar added in the products I compared, nor were there extra ingredients.
My goal with this field research and creepy photo taking in the grocery store was to determine if low fat and fat free options really are a better choice. While I didn’t review every single product in the store, the majority of the products I compared didn’t really have significantly less fat nor were they much less in calories than their “full fat” counterparts. In many cases the fat free/reduced fat products had significantly more sugar (sugar turns to fat when stored in the body, by the way). And we haven’t even gotten in to the discussion of taste. People may disagree with me on this, but many reduced fat/fat free foods simply don’t taste as good, especially when we’re talking about cheese, sour cream and other milk based products.
I’m sure nutrition and dietary experts will agree that the best way to maintain a low fat diet is to eat naturally low fat foods such as fruits and vegetables. But the reality is that sometimes we need a little more than fruits and vegetables, and I’m a firm believer in “all things in moderation”. Maybe we can’t eat cheese and sour cream all the time if we’re trying to maintain healthy eating habits or lose weight, but when we do, we shouldn’t feel bad about eating “the real thing”.