Low-Fat Foods: Good or Bad?

Low fat is out and healthy fat is in. Does that mean the era of low fat cookies is over? Not necessarily. Find out which fats are now recommended and how low fat foods can fit into a healthy diet.
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Photo by: Mariusz Blach

Mariusz Blach

Low-fat is out and healthy fat is in. Does that mean the era of low-fat cookies is over? Not necessarily. Find out which fats are now recommended and how low-fat foods can fit into a healthy diet.

Why do we need fat?

Fat isn’t bad — we actually need it to survive. Fat helps protect and cushion our critical organs, helps keeps nerves functions, keeps us warm and is a valuable energy source. It also helps transport vitamins A, D, E and K through our body and helps our immune system properly function.

About 20 to 30 years ago, the recommendation to go low-fat took America by storm. The creation and sale of low-fat products became the hottest fad. To this day, folks still can’t shake the low-fat state of mind.

What is a low-fat food?

The only guideline to claim a food is low fat is that it contains 3 grams of or less of fat per serving. Food companies reformulated their food to decrease the fat content. The problem? If you toss the fat, out goes the flavor, so sugar and other sweeteners were added in its place.

What do the studies show?

In January 2011 the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans based on the latest scientific data suggested it’s all about quality of fats. The recommendations focused on choosing healthy fats from sources like nuts, seeds, olives and avocado, while still keeping sources of saturated fats like butter, whole milk, beef and chicken with skin to less than 10 percent of overall daily calories. It also suggests minimizing trans fat, which is found in margarine and some processed foods like chips.

So what about the low-fat packaged goodies lining the supermarket shelves? Many of them contain a good amount of added sugar, which the new guidelines suggest you should cut out. Studies have repeatedly shown that we’re over-consuming calories, especially from the added sugars coming from these types of packaged goods.

How do I choose when to go low fat?

Not sure how to change your diet to meet the newest recommendations? Here are some shopping and portion-control tips for different types of low-fat and full-fat foods:

  • Low-fat cookies, muffins and other pastries: Read the nutrition facts panel to compare low-fat and regular varieties. The regular ones may be a healthier choice with less sugars and other additives.
  • Low-fat milk: It’s still recommended to choose low-fat (1 percent) and fat free milk instead of whole or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk.
  • Low-fat dressing: Vinaigrette dressings are made from oil, but bottled dressings contain added sugars and numerous additives. If you have time to make your own, go for it -- it's easy to make a week's worth at a time! If not, choose a bottled vinaigrette.
  • Nuts: These are packed with healthy unsaturated fats, so they're an important part of a healthy diet.  Since each nut has about 7 calories, choose about 20 (or a small handful) at a time to moderate calories.
  • Oils: With 120 calories in each tablespoon of ANY oil, it’s easy to overdose on calories. Choose olive or canola oil at the grocery store, but use it in small amounts.
  • Avocado: Packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, these are a definitely "do." But since they're so fatty, keep portions to 1/8 of an avocado per meal or snack.

Bottom Line: Low-fat products have their place, but don’t always taste good. Go for a small portion of the tastier full-fat version instead!

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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