fat free zone sign

We’ve all seen it. And likely we’ve fallen for it at least once, I know I have. Those 2 words that can make any product look ‘healthy’, ‘good for you’ or at the very least ‘not as bad as that other food’. Which two words am I referring to? Fat Free.

There is a lot of debate going on right now in the nutrition world about whether or not saturated fats are really the nutritional devil we’ve always thought them to be, but that’s a topic for another post at another time. Right now let’s look at what we do know about fat. It’s one of 3 macronutrients (along with protein and carbohydrates). Our body needs fat for energy, hormone production and fat is an important storage carrier of fat soluble vitamins A,D,E and K. But it’s been the punching bag for the diet industry for what seems like forever. Why is that? Calories.
fat free
1g of fat has more the 2x as many calories as 1g of protein or carbohydrate (9 kcals vs. 4 kcals, respectively). It is for that reason that diets, especially in the 1990’s, touted the importance of lowering fat intake. The food industry caught on to this trend and began replacing the fat in our food with other ingredients and labeling it as Reduced Fat, Low Fat, or the holy grail , Fat Free. What’s amazing is that this trend still continues. Fad diets come and go but the ‘fat free’ revolution seems to continue.
So what’s the problem? Last week we talked about ‘health halos‘ and this is a major one. Many of us see the ‘fat free’ label and assume the food is good for us. What we don’t do is turn the package over to the nutrition facts label and check what that fat has been replaced with – often, it is sugar. Taking out the fat means taking out the flavour (remember those Snackwell cookies from the 90’s that tasted like cardboard?). To make up for that lack of fat, sugar is added. But here’s the rub, when we consume too much sugar our body sees this as fuel to be stored for later. It takes that sugar and converts it to fat. Yep. The exact thing you were trying to avoid, happens anyways!
fat free cookies
What does this mean and what should we do? We need to look beyond the front of package claims and inspect the nutrition information and ingredient list. Look at the overall picture, not just one part of the food. Sure, it’s low in fat but is it high in sugar and sodium?
Evidence shows that fat-free foods included in very low fat diets don’t result in successful weight loss. Avoid fat-free packaged foods as they probably mean high sugar. Instead choose and eat more whole foods, that is, food that doesn’t come in a box.
*If you would like to read more about the food industry and some of the tricks of the trade check out Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.
book cover