Low fat vs Full fat Diet - Which one is better? Here's our expert's opinion

Should I eat low fat foods to lose weight?

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 might 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 managing 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 changes depend on calories, not fat content

Let's not lose sight of the basics of weight management: 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.

Should I 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. Some foods modified to be low fat or fat free are highly processed and may 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 to 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, learn how to portion-control the high fat, high calorie food or limit how often it is consumed.

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).

When should I choose 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.

  1. Reduce the fat 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 weight (using 3500 calories/lb).

  2. Reduce the fat when it 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.

  3. Reduce the fat 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.

Originally published on 16 April 2013,
Updated: 25 October 2019

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, 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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