You might assume that picking low-fat food instead of full-fat options is the healthiest way to go. After all, these items tend to have less calories, and a low-calorie diet can be helpful for shedding those few extra pounds. But going the low-fat route isn’t always the better choice.
“It depends on what your goals are,” said Katherine Carithers, MHA, RD, CSO, CNSC, a clinical nutrition manager at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Certain people might benefit from choosing low-fat foods in order to lower overall caloric intake.”
Indeed, the idea that low fat is automatically better is a common nutrition myth. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of low-fat food and who might benefit from them. Plus, how you can enjoy them without going overboard.
The Drawbacks of Low-Fat Food
Things like fat-free whipped cream, crackers or cookies might help you eat a low-calorie diet. But foods like these tend to be highly processed. They’re often made with extra sugar or undesirable ingredients aimed at improving their flavor or texture. They don’t offer much nutrition, so they’re not necessarily the healthiest choice, Carithers said.
That’s why it’s a good rule of thumb to choose mostly whole, minimally processed foods. “You just want to eat food in the most natural form that it comes in,” Carithers said. Think plain yogurt with fresh fruit instead of a fat-free, strawberry-flavored frozen yogurt bar. Or air-popped popcorn drizzled with a small amount of olive oil instead of low-fat potato chips.
Why? For one, unprocessed foods tend to be higher in vitamins, minerals and fiber. You might also find they’re more satisfying, which can actually help you eat less overall.
When Low-Fat Food Can Help
There are some instances when going low fat can be a good choice, at least for a little while. “Fat provides more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates, so for those trying to lower their caloric intake to lose weight, temporarily utilizing lower-fat, processed foods can be beneficial,” Carithers said. For instance, a scoop of low-fat ice cream can help crush a sweet craving while helping you stay within a tighter calorie budget as you work to reach your goal weight.
There are even a few low-fat foods that you should be choosing on a regular basis. In general, it’s better to pick low or nonfat dairy items like milk and yogurt over their full-fat counterparts. “The fat in dairy products is saturated fat. This type of fat is linked to higher cholesterol, which can increase the risk for heart disease,” said Carithers. (It’s OK to use small amounts of full-fat cheese though since low-fat versions simply aren’t that tasty. Just keep your portions in check — a serving of cheese is the size of two dice.)
Making the Right Choice for You
Low-fat foods can be a good option for some people, some of the time. If you’re thinking about adding them to your diet, here are important tips to keep in mind.
- Pay attention to portions. Keeping an eye on your serving size is key for losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight, Carithers said. Remember, calories always count, even if a food is fat free.
- Remember low-fat treats are still treats. Just because those cookies are low-fat doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to eat them all the time. You should still save low-fat desserts for special occasions.
- Aim for a mostly whole-food diet. It’s OK to rely on some low-fat packaged foods to help you reach a healthier weight, but it’s smart to try to stick with minimally processed foods overall. Think fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.
Do you need a little more guidance? Set up an appointment with a registered dietitian. Together, you can figure out a healthy eating plan that can help you reach your goal weight and live a healthier life.