For many people, the first step of trying to lose weight is cutting down on the amount of fat.
That approach isn’t particularly surprising.
After all, most health recommendations still focus on the idea that we should be eating less fat, even though the science behind that advice is minimal (1).
Additionally, people often inherently believe that low fat food is healthier.
But, is low fat really healthy?
In some cases, it might be, but most of the time low fat foods can actually be pretty unhealthy. Instead, low fat versions of food often have a higher-than-average amount of sugar.
The end result is that you can end up consuming more calories by eating low fat foods – an issue that has significant implications for weight loss. Additionally, lowering the fat and increasing the sugar can make foods less satisfying, meaning that people eat more. This is something that Shape.com points out as well.
People are becoming increasingly aware of this issue with low fat foods, but so far there has been little research looking at how prominent the pattern is.
One recent analysis (Nguyen, Lin & Heidenreich, 2016) looked at this topic.
Specifically, the authors took information on foods recommended by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (2) and compared the nutritional content of these foods with higher fat equivalents.
The authors found that on average the amount of sugar was significantly higher for the low fat and non-fat versions of regular products.
This can be seen in the image below, which depicts the average results from the analysis of dairy products.
As you can see, the regular version of the product had much higher levels of fat and lower levels of sugar. In contrast, both the light and non-fat versions had a higher amount of sugar than the regular.
Strengths and Limitations of the Study
This particular paper wasn’t really a scientific study. Instead, it was a relatively basic comparison of values in food along with some statistical analysis.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the study did reinforce conventional knowledge – that food manufacturers often increase sugar when fat is decreased.
With this study, the key limitation was the product selection. In particular, the authors were attempting to compare regular, light and non-fat products that were roughly equivalent.
That approach makes sense, but it’s also limited. In particular, people tend to be a bit unpredictable about food.
For example, a person might like the taste of a regular product from one brand, but prefer the low-fat version of a similar product from a different brand.
Likewise, there are many light and non-fat products where the manufacturers intentionally try to keep the sugar content down as well as the fat.
So, it’s best to view the outcomes of this study as a very general indication of fat versus sugar in various kinds of food products.
Is Low Fat Really Healthy?
The study strongly shows that low fat foods may not be nearly as good as we think they are. Often we just end up replacing fat for sugar. That’s not a healthy practice.
To make matters worse, many people simply assume that low fat food is healthy, without ever checking. For example, a packet of Fig Newtons is advertised as fat-free (and it is, mostly). But, if you look at the ingredients list, you’ll see this:
Now, that’s 14 g of sugar for one cookie. That cookie weighs around 30 g. So, close to half of the cookie is sugar.
Ouch! Yet, the fat-free label implies the cookies are actually healthy.
This study shows that we should be paying much more attention to the nutrition of the food we eat, especially food that is marketed as being healthy. Far too often food seems like it should be healthy, but in reality, it isn’t even remotely good for us.
What's more, as the site Love Food highlights, food manufacturers are often being intentionally misleading. So, they do tend to imply that food is healthier than it actually is.
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