The Low Down On Low Fat

Awareness of the types and amounts of fat in foods can lead to healthy choices

It seems like a no-brainer. You love strawberry yogurt, your favorite brand is stocked at the store, and there are two kinds—regular and low fat—for the same price. You want the food you love, but you also want to consider your health. So the clear choice is low fat, right?

The honest answer is, unfortunately, not a definitive “yes” or “no,” but “it depends.”

“Diets that include excessive low-fat and fat-free products may be too limiting for certain types of heart-healthy fats,” explains Heather Atkinson, a registered dietitian with St. Joseph’s/Candler.  “People on these diets could be missing out on good sources of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids. Also, fat-free products are also often not nutrient-dense foods.”

What is not always clear on the front of the packaging is the type of ingredients that manufacturers use to replace the fat in order to keep their product palatable.

What’s In There?

“Some low-fat and fat-free items contain more total carbohydrates and sodium than regular foods,” Atkinson says. “Often the low-fat choices at restaurant and prepared meals at grocery stores are so loaded with sodium that it’s possible to exceed one’s daily sodium requirements in one serving of those items.”

Atkinson encourages patients to read the labels of not just their favorite strawberry yogurt but also any frozen dinners or other processed foods, especially those that boast being low fat or fat free.

“Look at total amount of sodium or carbohydrates per serving and pay attention to the serving size on labels,” Atkinson says. “If you already have risk factors for heart disease or high blood pressure, it is recommended that you keep your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams or less per day.”

People should take that same awareness into their favorite restaurants as well.

“Pay attention to portion sizes and add more nutrient-dense, lower-calorie side items, such as broccoli, to your meal,” says Atkinson. “It’s even possible to research the nutrition content of menu items at certain restaurants online before you go.”

Bad Reputation

The popularity of low-fat diets is partially attributable to the public’s perception that all fat is bad. However, our bodies need fats for proper cell function. It is the type and the amount of fats consumed that affects a person’s weight and heart health.

 “The composition of an overall healthy food plan is important,” Atkinson says. “High-fat foods are high in calories, so an excessive intake of those can interfere in weight management and contribute to obesity, which in turn increases one’s risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes."

Excess saturated fats and trans fats in particular have been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The labels on grocery store products include the amount of these fats, so be sure to look for that information.

“The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of saturated fats you eat to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories and limiting the amount of trans fat to less than 1 percent,” Atkinson says. “They recommend eating between 25 and 35 percent of your total daily calories as fats from foods like fish, nuts and vegetable oils.  The majority of fats you eat should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.”

When Low Fat Is The Smart Choice

Atkinson works with many cardiac patients at St. Joseph’s/Candler for whom certain low-fat options are the best choice. But even for the general public, she recommends lean meats and low-fat dairy products as part of a lower-calorie, healthy meal plan.

“Fat-free, or skim, milk is a healthy option,” Atkinson says. “We do recommend light yogurts and other low-fat dairy products as well for the benefit of the lower saturated fat content. But you do have to watch for added sugars.  Those amounts vary by item and brand so you always have to check labels.”
Balance is also an important part of any dietary pattern, which is why Atkinson does not recommend any diet that can lead to a lack of variety, which can limit nutrients.

“I promote behavioral changes to adopt a healthy eating pattern,” she says. “There are some eating styles—such as the Mediterranean Diet—that a person can use as a guide, but I don’t recommend popular fad diets. Speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian for help with an individualized food plan based on your calorie needs and lifestyle.”

Use The Power Of ‘Instead’ At Snack Time

We’d never tell you not to snack…we love snack time way too much! But dietitian Heather Atkinson has some ideas that might be better than your usual high-fat items or low-fat items that are processed with added sodium or sugars. Use the power of ‘instead’ to try:

Light unsalted pretzels instead of regular potato chips

Hummus instead of low-fat French onion dip

Light single-serving cheese instead of cheddar cheese with crackers
Air-popped popcorn with olive oil instead of baked chips
Balsamic vinaigrette instead of fat-free ranch dressing

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