Why a fat-free diet is bad for your health

Fat free does not always equal healthy and is not always better for weight loss

woman eating low-fat yogurt
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It’s easy to associate “fat-free” with “healthy”. After all, in a culture obsessed with body image, we are constantly on the hunt for lower calorie options that will be easier on our waistlines! Low fat means low calorie, and low calorie leads to weight loss, and weight loss is healthy, right? Well, yes and no.

First off, it’s important to know the lingo. When considering low fat food options, there are four different categories to consider:

Fat-free: Less than 0.5g fat/serving
Low Fat: Less than 3g fat/serving
Reduced Fat: 25% less fat than full fat version
Light: 50% less fat (or 30% fewer calories) than full fat version

Two types of low fat

Under low fat, there are two different types:

Naturally Low Fat
These include veggies, fruit, grains, legumes, lean meat

Processed Low Fat
Low fat dairy, low fat salad dressings and other condiments like peanut butter, jam, mayo and margarine, low fat cereals, low fat baked goods

The four categories above are pretty self-explanatory. If you read the nutrition label on the back of any package, you can see how many grams of fat are in each serving, and when you are grocery shopping, you can easily compare labels to see what the full fat option would look like (hint: compare grams of fat to see how much it has been reduced and compare grams of sugar to see how much has been added).

You might be thinking to yourself, “I know how to read nutrition labels, but what’s the difference between naturally low fat and processed low fat — low fat is low fat, isn’t it?”, and that’s a great question! Herein lies the answer to some of your weight loss confusion, and it involves not only reading the nutrition label but also reading the list of ingredients. Many people assume that when it comes to low fat diet, the lesser fat the better, but that is far from true. Let’s see why:

1.  Low fat processed foods

Let’s take fat-free flavored yoghurt for example. Everyone knows yoghurt is a healthy option—After all, it is high in protein and full of active bacterial cultures to help with digestion. Full fat yoghurt is rich and full of flavor, and one serving is often enough; however, when the fat is removed from full fat dairy, it is often replaced with fillers (additives to bulk up the food) and sugar. Fillers range from binding agents to hydrogenated oils, which can often be indigestible or toxic to the body.

When reading the label, look for things like cellulose, xanthan gum, locust bean gum, soy, palm oil, olestra, carrageenan or potassium bromate to name a few! Added sugar is equally as dangerous. The added sugar will not only make up for some of the calories you might have saved by removing the fat, but it will also result in an increased spike in blood sugar, leaving you with unnecessarily high insulin levels. In addition, because the fillers and sugar serve to make the low fat product more palatable, it often doesn’t compare to the real thing, and you might end up eating even more than one serving to feel satisfied, leaving you with even more calories consumed than if you had just had the full fat version to begin with! Pass or fail? I give fat-free flavored yoghurt a fail.

Try choosing plain yoghurt to cut back on sugar content, and choose a low fat or reduced fat option (1-2% MF) to cut back on some of the calories. This is an example where fat-free isn’t ideal, but light or low fat still wins! The same rules apply to other low fat or fat-free processed foods, so put your thinking cap on, bust out the nutrition labels; start comparing fat and sugar content, and look for some of the sneaky fillers listed above! There’s no shame in geeking-out over this. Your health is on the line!

2.  Naturally fat-free food

Fruit is an excellent example of a food that is low/no fat in its natural state. This means the food doesn’t require any processing, fillers, or added sugars to make it fat-free. Fruit is filled with beautiful vitamins, nutrients and fibre, but some fruit is high on the glycemic index, which causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin.

Vegetables on the other hand are generally low in sugar and higher in fibre, which bring the resulting blood sugar spike way down as compared to fruit. Does this mean you should skip fruit in place of vegetables? Coming from a weight loss perspective, it would be a good idea to limit fruit to 1-2 servings per day and fill your plate with veggies instead to help regulate your blood sugar, but for overall general health, they both have great qualities and should both be included in your healthy diet. Pass or fail? I give fruit (1-2 servings per day) and veggies (lots!) a pass with an A+.

Chaulk full of vitamins, nutrients and fibre, these dietary superstars are low calorie, naturally low in fat and easy on the waistline. (If anyone is left wondering, grains, legumes and lean meats also pass with flying colors).

So what does all of this mean? In any healthy diet, the average adult requires dietary fat to make up 20 – 35% of the total calories. 35% is more than one third of the recommended daily caloric intake. This means about ⅓ of the calories you consume each day should come from fat. Fat is not only great for digestion, skin and hair, but it is also essential for the absorption of many nutrients from other foods in your diet, and in order to lose weight and trim your body fat down, all your body processes need to be running smoothly! The bulk of fat in your diet should actually come from high fat, natural, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods.

Huh? High fat foods for weight loss? YES!

When it comes to fat, the healthiest form of fat is monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, which come from naturally occurring foods like avocados, nuts (or natural nut butters), seeds, and fatty fish (or fish oils). One thing to take note of when including ⅓ of your calories from fat is that fat is more than twice as calorie dense as its other two macronutrient counterparts and weighs in at a whopping nine calories per gram (as opposed to only four calories per gram for carbs and protein). For this reason, it will be important to keep an eye on your fat serving sizes. For a 2000 calorie diet, the calories from fat should make up between 400 (20%) and 700 (35%) total calories, which is about 44 – 77g fat.

Fat Serving Grams of fat, Calories
1 tbsp nut butter 7g fat, 90 calories
1 tbsp olive oil 14g fat, 120 calories
6 oz salmon 14g fat, 270 calories
1 oz almonds 15g fat, 170 calories
½ a medium avocado 11g fat, 120 calories

The verdict?

Fat-free or low fat does NOT always equal healthy (in fact, quite the opposite) and is not always better for weight loss. To give yourself the best possible chance of weight loss, and to do it the healthiest, most balanced way possible, choose your fats from either naturally occurring fat sources or lower fat, sugar free/plain processed options. Always read labels carefully, and aim for 20-35% of your total calories from healthy fats.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Normally I don’t comment on every article but this article is very well written and very informative. Thanks for sharing

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