Is Low-Fat Always Better Than Full-Fat?

It wasn’t so long ago that we began blaming fat for all the things that ail us, leading to widespread fat phobia and the proliferation of lower-fat foods on store shelves. Yet opting for low-fat or fat-free items might be hurting, not helping, our health and weight-loss efforts. Here's why.
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Illustration: Stephanie Birdsong

Nope! It's a myth. It wasn’t so long ago that we began blaming fat for all the things that ail us, leading to widespread fat phobia and the proliferation of lower-fat foods on store shelves. Yet opting for only low-fat or fat-free items might be hurting, not helping, our health and weight-loss efforts. Researchers at Cornell University discovered that labeling snacks as “low-fat” ups their consumption at a single sitting by as much as 50 percent.

Why? 
A “low-fat” label can increase what people perceive to be an appropriate serving size, and temper the guilt associated with, say, polishing off a bag of reduced-fat chips; similarly, a study in the journal Appetite found that people tend to underestimate the calories in candy presented as low-fat, and also perceive the candy to be more healthful than full-fat versions. Such miscalculations can lead to excessive calorie intake and potential weight gain.

Worse still, reduced-fat versions of grocery products aren’t necessarily 
a nutritional upgrade. When fat is removed from such items as peanut butter, frozen yogurt, and salad dressings, manufacturers tend to make up for the 
loss of flavor and texture by pumping in more sugar and salt, which raise 
heart disease risk.

Not to be overlooked are nutritional assists from fats. A type of unsaturated fat called oleic acid, packed into foods including olive oil, converts to a hunger-curbing compound in the body, thus helping curtail between-meal trips to the cookie jar. Fat also improves absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as the vitamin D added to milk. And, according to research from Purdue University, even just a bit of the monounsaturated fat in canola oil– or olive oil–based dressings promotes absorption of health-protective carotenoid antioxidants supplied by salad veggies.

Fat Chance Adults should get 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fat, according to the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Start with these naturally fat-rich plant foods that provide plenty of nutritional perks.

Almond butter supplies magnesium, a mineral that aids in lessening heart disease risk. 
Spread on crackers, apple slices, and celery sticks. Here's how to make your own almond butter.

Avocado boosts dietary fiber intake to help kick-start weight loss. 
Blend into smoothies, chocolate desserts, and dips.

Hemp seeds are a good source of plant-based protein, delivering about 
10 grams per 3-tablespoon serving. 
Add to yogurt, salads, and soups.

Bottom Line: Don’t always fear the fat. In most cases, you’re better off selecting the full-fat versions of grocery goods, and simply paying attention to portions to keep calories in check.