When you’re at the grocery store and two options are staring you down—one that says “reduced fat” and one that’s unapologetically full-fat—choosing the less fattening option is a no-brainer, right? Not so fast!
“Just because a product is labeled ‘fat-free’ or ‘lowfat’ doesn’t mean it’s healthier or even lower in calories,” says Jared Koch, a nutritionist in New York and the founder of Clean Plates. “In fact, most lowfat or fat-free foods will have sugar and chemicals to make up for the loss in taste, which renders them poor nutritional choices.”
Plus, our bodies need healthy fat in our food to keep our cell walls strong, absorb important vitamins and regulate our hormones. Taking away that fat and adding in chemicals can have another unexpected result: Franken-foods that don’t cook the way they should, or crumble up when they shouldn’t. Here are eight full-fat foods that are actually better for you than their reduced-fat or nonfat relatives.
Salad Dressing You might think that a salad filled with low-calorie, lowfat veggies would find its match in a low-calorie, lowfat dressing. The opposite is true, though.
Researchers from Purdue University found that while fat-free dressings are lower in calories than fat-based dressings, they block absorption of fruits’ and veggies’ nutrients, like carotenoids which protect your body’s cells. According to the study, dressings with monounsaturated fats (from canola and olive oil, for instance) boosted the absorption of the veggies’ carotenoids. Dressings made with polyunsaturated fat (from soybean oil) and saturated fat (from plain old butter) helped absorption, too, but it takes more dressing to reap the rewards.
Don’t use this info as an excuse to smother your salad in high-fat dressing—just 1/5 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil drizzled onto a salad is enough to get the best out of veggies.
Sure, peanut butter is high in fat and calories—a two-tablespoon serving can pack about 190 calories and 16 grams of fat. But is it nuts to buy the reduced-fat version?
“The fat in peanut butter is healthy monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to decrease inflammation, raise healthy cholesterol levels, promote weight loss and possibly fight belly fat,” says Erin Palinski, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of the forthcoming Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.
“Reduced-fat peanut butter takes away some of this healthy fat and replaces it with sugar.” To make the most of your PB, buy a natural version with no added sugar.
If milk does a body good, then nonfat milk probably does a body better, no?
“Milk is fortified with vitamins A and D, which are fat-soluble vitamins—essential vitamins that are stored in your liver and necessary for the absorption of other important nutrients,” says Palinski.
“When you take all the fat out of milk, you don’t properly absorb these essential vitamins.” (This is why you’ll often see skim milks with added vitamins A and D.)
Instead of nonfat or skim milk, try one percent—it’s still low in saturated fat, but it has just enough fat to up vitamin absorption. And there’s a bonus: “One-percent milk contains higher levels than fat-free milk of conjugated lineolic acid, which may help reduce body fat,” says Palinski. But if you’re looking for an extra calcium kick from your milk, a glass of skim could be your best bet.
“Salt, sugar and fat are the three primary vehicles to deliver taste,” says Koch. “Whenever you remove one, one of the others replaces it to ensure a food is still yummy. So lowfat or fat-free cookies have a lot of extra sugar or high-fructose corn syrup to make up for the missing ingredient.”
And too much sugar can lead to higher triglyceride levels, which increases your risk of developing coronary artery disease and gaining weight. Another problem with fat-free or lowfat cookies: the crumble factor.
Because they’re made with chemicals, they tend to turn into dust at the bottom of the box more quickly than cookies made with natural ingredients.
OK, there aren’t a lot of health benefits to be found in full-fat chips, but certain lowfat and nonfat chips could be even worse.
That’s because some brands contain fat-mimicking chemicals that can cause intestinal cramps, gas and diarrhea. On the label, look for the words “Olean” and “Olestra”—they’re synthetic fats added to foods that have been found to cause these symptoms—and they may also result in weight gain.
Stick to small serving sizes of regular chips—or better yet, try baked versions, which don’t contain fake fats at all.
It sure sounds like a good idea—take the fat out of ice cream and create a magical food you can eat all day, every day.
Beware: “Fat helps you feel full. Without that fat, you keep eating,” says Palinski.
And even though fat-free ice cream might not pack in the fat grams, it still packs in the calories. A ½ cup of full-fat vanilla is about 230 calories and a ½ cup of reduced-fat vanilla is about 170, which can add up fast.
We’ve all nuked a lowfat frozen meal and called it lunch—and why not? It’s easy, low-effort and relatively low-cal. The only problem? “They have much more sodium than their full-fat counterparts,” says Julie McGinnis, MS, RD, a dietitian in Boulder, CO, who also owns The Gluten Free Bistro.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that adults eat no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Processed foods are salt-filled wonderlands—lowfat frozen meals can have half your daily allowance in one lunch. To lick the salt once and for all, make your own frozen meals; all you need are fresh foods and a freezer.
Sweet, cool and creamy, yogurt is a popular go-to snack. Full-fat versions contain about 8 grams of fat per serving; lowfat versions clock in somewhere around 4 grams of fat per serving.
“But some lowfat yogurt brands make up for a lack of fat with artificial sweeteners,” says McGinnis. And studies have shown that sugar substitutes may overstimulate your taste buds, leading you to crave more sweet foods and upping your risk of weight gain.
Also, some experts are concerned that sugar substitutes are addictive. If you want a lowfat yogurt, make it Greek—many brands have no added sweeteners, artificial or otherwise.