16 April 2013 Low Fat vs. Full Fat Foods?

People often ask me if they need to eat low fat foods to lose weight. Technically, the answer is "no". But choosing reduced fat or fat free versions of certain foods could make it easier to consume fewer calories. It depends upon the person's typical eating habits, food preferences, and how the food swap affects their overall calories intake.

If you are successfully losing or controlling your weight with the choices you are presently making then you have already figured out what works well for you. But if you are still struggling and tend to consume most of your calories from high fat foods, then consider experimenting with lower fat foods.

Weight Control Boils Down to Calories

Let's not lose sight of the basics of weight control: calories. To lose weight, total calories intake must be less than the total calories expended (the sum of basal metabolism + thermogenesis + physical activity). All eating plans or diet types can result in weight loss if a calories deficit is achieved. The challenge is to find an eating style that allows you to lose weight while also supporting nutritional needs, taste preferences, budget, overall health, satiety, and enjoyment.

Limit Fat?

Since fat contains the most calories per gram weight (compared to alcohol, carbs, and protein), it is often targeted as a way to reduce calories. However, many people find that eating low fat foods is not satisfying so they don't stick with the eating plan. Many foods modified to be low fat or fat free are highly processed and often contain more added sugars and salt. And simply switching to low fat products does not ensure a lower calories intake, especially if it is accompanied by an increase in carb calories.

The trick is cherry pick food swaps that will actually work to decrease calories intake while not comprising nutritional quality or satisfaction. Or, if a swap is not effective, learning how to portion-control the high fat, high calorie food or limiting how often it is consumed is important.

Tracking food and beverage intake along with notes about hunger can help you pinpoint meals and snacks that serve to support or sabotage your efforts to lose or maintain weight loss. If you use MyNetDiary, you can use the Notes feature to record your perception of hunger or satiety. These notes will print on the nutrition Summary report (see Report tab in your web program - requires a Premium membership).

For more information on calories and tracking, be sure to read my article at MyNetDiary

When to Try Reduced Fat or Fat Free Foods

There is no hard and fast rule about which foods to swap, but you might find these tips helpful.

When the food is consumed multiple times a day

Personal example: I consume about 4 servings of dairy products a day (2 cups of milk, 1 container of yogurt, and 1 serving of cheese). I was able to lower my calories intake by 210 calories a day by making three swaps that didn't affect my satisfaction or nutritional quality:

120 calories: replaced 2 cups of whole milk with 2 cups of skim milk
40 calories: replaced 5 oz serving of full fat Greek yogurt with nonfat Greek yogurt
50 calories: replaced 1 oz cheddar cheese with 1 reduced fat cheese stick

Those changes save me a whopping 6300 calories every month - equivalent to 1.8 lbs of body weight (using 3500 calories/lb).

Of note, when I experiment with consuming full fat dairy foods again, I gain weight. The higher fat content does not make me more satisfied - I still consume the same amount of food but my caloric intake is higher so I gain weight.

When the low fat food works as well as the high fat food to satisfy a craving

Personal example: Ice cream. One-half cup of full fat ice cream can contain over 200 calories. Some of my friends tell me that they are more satisfied with "the good stuff" but that is not the case with me. The combination of high fat with any amount of sugar is a deal breaker for me so if I eat it, I try to minimize caloric damage. I find that 1/2 cup of low fat churned vanilla ice cream for 100 calories satisfies me as much as the 1/2 cup of Ben & Jerry's vanilla for 220 calories. You could argue that the sugar content in both is the problem (and I would agree), but still, if I am going to consume a sugary food, I would rather have it cost me 100 calories instead of 220 calories. Some folks choose sugar-free sweets, but I dislike the taste of artificial sweeteners in most foods so it is not an option for me.

When the food will be combined with other ingredients

  • Texture of lean meats can be promoted by using recipes containing wet ingredients such as vegetables and fruit to help retain moisture.
  • Lean meats, fish, and poultry used in recipes with plenty of spices, onion, garlic, and/or ginger work well since the loss of fat flavor is masked.
  • Combining a small amount of a high fat meat with a larger portion of very lean meat can work wonders for traditional dishes such as spaghetti sauce (e.g. 1/4 Italian sausage + 3/4 extra lean ground beef or turkey).
  • Reduced fat mayo is an easy swap for meat salads and sandwich condiments, especially if you add spices and herbs for flavor.
  • Nonfat plain Greek yogurt provides a very creamy thick texture with a nice sour edge that rivals full-fat sour cream for dips, dressings, and as sides to cooked vegetable dishes.

Lower fat meats require different cooking techniques and creative additions of ingredients to offset the loss of flavor and texture from fat. Cooking Light is an excellent resource for learning how to cook with leaner meats, fish, and poultry.

Note: if your extra calories are coming from sugary foods rather than fats, then target those foods first for controlling calories.

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RD, CDE
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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

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Foods & Recipes/Dairy Foods Meal Planning & Diets/Low Fat & High Fat

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