Why you should avoid products that are reduced or low fat

One of the first things many of us do when we’re trying to be healthy is go for the low fat products in the grocery store. We’ve been conditioned to think it’s better to eat less fat, and it’s an easy way to cut calories while still retaining flavor. But when things seem too good to be true, they probably are. There are a lot of very good reasons you should avoid products that are reduced or low fat — mainly because your body needs good fats, but also because the ingredients used to make it low or reduced fat aren’t very good for you at all.

Let’s start with the basics.

When you see low or reduced fat on a food label, it means a very specific thing. To make a product low fat, food manufacturers have to make sure it only has 3 grams of fat or less. For reduced fat products, it just has to have 25 percent less fat than its regular counterpart. Confused?

All Great Nutrition founder Tamar Samuels, a registered dietician, nutritionist, and certified health and wellness coach based in New York City, breaks it down for HelloGiggles in terms you can actually understand.

"Reduced fat cream cheese has 25 percent less fat than regular cream cheese, but it is not necessarily a low fat food because it has more than 3 grams of fat per serving," Samuels says.

And we thought shopping for low and reduced fat products was supposed to make things simple.

Samuels notes that these labels are supposed to prevent consumers from getting swindled by food companies, but they actually end up hurting consumers more. Especially because low fat and reduced fat don’t actually mean “healthy,” although they sure sound like it, right? But trust us — they aren’t.

When a food company takes something out of a product to meet the labeling requirements, they’re forced to replace it with something else in order for it to taste edible.

"Low fat products are notoriously high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which are the biggest culprits for weight gain and insulin resistance. [This] is the condition that contributes to Type 2 diabetes," Samuels tells HG.

Samuels tells us about all the artificial ingredients used in low fat foods as well. “Food manufacturers also add in stabilizers, emulsifiers, and other food additives to try and replicate the texture and mouthfeel of fat in low fat products,” she says. “Unfortunately, these food additives are not well regulated and we don’t yet know of the potential health implications of consuming them in large quantities over a long period of time.”

Well, that doesn’t sound very great. But there’s another, less sinister reason to avoid random emulsifiers in your cream cheese. You’ve heard this before, so repeat after us:

Healthy fats are good for you!

Not only are fats a source of energy and calories, Samuels says, they also help our bodies process all the other good things we’re putting into our bodies.

“Fat is needed to build cell membranes in all of our cells, including the sheaths around our nerves. In fact, our brain is made up of about 60 percent fat, which aids in communications between neurons,” she says. So we want fats. We need them!

"Fat is a complex nutrient! There are several different kinds of fat — saturated, unsaturated, trans — and within those categories there are even more subcategories of different kinds of fat. Some fats are good, some are neutral, and others are harmful to our health," Samuels explains.

Most experts agree that trans fats are harmful for us, so you want to avoid products with them “at all costs,” Samuels says, since they lead to heart disease and other conditions down the road. If you can’t find “trans fat” on the label, Samuels proposes looking for “hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients lists, since it indicates a high level of trans fats. 

Saturated fats, like butter, are the most controversial (and part of the reason this whole low fat thing started in the first place) because they raise LDL cholesterol. However, they also raise good cholesterol. So before you completely write them off, speak to your doctor or nutritionist about whether you need more or less of them in your diet, because genetics plays a big role in how much they will affect your fat intake and cholesterol.

“We need to move away from one size fits all diets and towards individualized diet and lifestyle recommendations. Some people do well with saturated fats in their diet, while others may not,” Samuels says.

The other category of fats is unsaturated fats, which are found in fish oils, the blessed avocado, and nuts. These fats work as an anti-inflammatory to strengthen your muscles and prevent chronic disease, and they can even treat heart disease, according to Samuels. So if you’re throwing  “low fat peanut butter” into your cart, you’re doing it wrong. You want those peanut fats

But if you’ve been largely buying low fat labeled products to eat healthy, you don’t have to start from scratch. Samuels says that some low or reduced fat products that aren’t heavily processed can be good for you, so just check the sugar content on the ingredients list. Likewise, using leaner cuts of meat that have lower fat content, like turkey bacon, is okay. When it comes to meat, some types are just naturally low fat.

"You can also choose leaner cuts of meat like sirloin, which is naturally lower in fat compared to other cuts of meat. I also recommend eating meat from wild and/or grass fed animals, which are naturally leaner and actually contain more nutrients than many farm-raised corn-fed animals," Samuels suggests.

So instead of looking at the big, block letters screaming LOW FAT at you from the aisles, take the time to turn the box around and read the ingredient lists, because that’s where you can get the full truth about what you’re eating.

"Stick with packaged foods that are made from *real food* and use the ingredient list to help you make that choice. Ingredients are listed in order by weight, so make sure sugar is not one of the first 3 ingredients when choosing a between products," Samuels says.

Samuels tells HelloGiggles that when it comes to snacking, she suggests sticking to fruit, which is high in water and fiber to keep you hydrated and full, or a handful of nuts. “There are also some great individual nut butter packets from Justin’s and Barney Butter that you can just throw in your bag,” she shares. 

Of course, if you’re thinking about making any major changes to your diet, consult a dietician, nutritionist, or even your primary care provider. You want to keep it safe, healthy, and, most of all, delicious. Now pass us that full-fat string cheese.