You’re shopping at the grocery store and faced with the option of buying regular or reduced-fat peanut butter. Seems like reaching for the latter variety would be doing your health (and your waistline) a favor, right? Not exactly.
The low-fat craze started in the ’90s after a few observational studies linked fat intake to heart disease, Kerry Clifford, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian for Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets, told Fox News. That’s all it took for Americans to consider fat evil, and low-fat, fat-free and reduced-fat versions of nearly ever food imaginable followed suit.
The problem is they don’t simply take fat out. “The fat is typically replaced with sugar, sodium, additives, preservatives or thickeners to create a similar taste, texture and consistency,” Tracy Lesht, MS, RD, told Fox News. “This process turns the once full-fat food into a heavily processed low-fat item with a slew of added ingredients.”
A January 2016 study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes found sugar content is higher in foods marked as low-fat versus the full-fat versions. The researchers concluded that even slightly higher sugar counts can lead to weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
There’s also proof that people tend to eat more of foods labeled low-fat, thinking they’re healthier. Researchers from Cornell University found people end up eating as much as 50 percent more from a snack labeled low-fat than those who don’t see the claim. Lesht said that’s problematic because many low-fat foods have just as many calories as their regular counterparts.
Finally, experts agree it was wrong to obsess over low-fat foods, as saturated fats aren’t as bad as people once thought, Lesht said. Good-for-you fats, such as those found in nuts, olive oil and avocados, help control blood sugar and tell the brain when you’re feeling full, Clifford said.
Clifford and Lesht recommended loading up on foods that are naturally low in fat, such as fruit, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, and staying away from packaged foods labelled low-fat, including:
- Anything that’s healthy because of its fat, including peanut butter and almond butter, Clifford said.
- Salad dressings. “Low-fat salad dressings are notorious for being loaded with artificial ingredients and preservatives,” Lesht said. Go for full-fat versions, which usually have healthy olive oil as a key ingredient. Or make a simple dressing of olive oil and fresh lemon juice at home, she suggested.
- Yogurt — especially flavored yogurt, which is usually packed with sugar (looking at you, fruit-on-the-bottom varieties). Choose full-fat Greek yogurt or low-fat plain yogurt instead, Lesht said.
- Packaged cookies, cakes, chips and crackers. By eating a full-fat option, you’ll likely feel satisfied after a smaller portion, Clifford said. Plus, you’ll avoid the processed ingredients that go into these “diet” foods, Lesht said.
- Milk. Fat-free versions lack the vitamin D content that makes milk healthy, Clifford said. A June 2013 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care also found men who ate low-fat dairy had a higher risk of becoming obese than those who went for the full-fat options.