REDUCING the amount of fat in our diets has been shown to contribute to weight loss.
However swapping our normal foods for low-fat options does not have the same result. “If you rely on processed and convenience foods rather than cooking from scratch, results may not come so quickly,” says Rick Miller, of the British Dietetic Association.
In fact it could have the opposite effect. Here we explain why.
Fat in food has many functions. “It provides flavour, crispness, tenderness and creaminess to ensure a smooth and velvety mouth feel,” says Rick. “Think of a chocolate bar and you’ll know what I mean. It’s also satisfying and gives us energy.
“Plus we need some fat to absorb vitamins and minerals from the other foods we eat.”
The fat replacement chosen by manufacturers depends on which properties of fat are being duplicated. Ideally they want to end up with a product that tastes just as good but with fewer calories from fat.
“If you take away some or all of the fat from a product you usually have to add something to replace both the taste and the consistency. It’s these replacement ingredients that may affect our health or hinder our weight-loss efforts,” says Rick.
While some low-fat products such as skimmed milk are useful for health and weight loss many products have their fat switched for high-Glycaemic Index (GI) carbohydrates.
“This means they’re not necessarily lower in calories and may have a different impact on the body when it comes to fat gain and fat loss,” explains Rick.
“Fat substitutes can come from carbohydrate, protein or other fat sources. Often a combination of substitutes is used to mimic the properties of fat in a product.”
For example, in biscuits and cakes we are likely to see carbohydrate replacements such as sugars (often in the form of dextrins, maltodextrins or corn syrup), modified starch, cellulose-based fibre and vegetable gums.
Such replacements are likely to top up any calories lost from fat with calories from carbohydrates.
This means lower-fat biscuits may end up with a similar number of calories as the product they’re replacing.
“Sugar and carbohydrate replacements often raise the GI of a product too,” Rick says.
That makes it more likely to increase production of insulin in the body.
Insulin controls blood sugar levels by shunting glucose into muscle, liver and fat cells.
“Reduced-fat biscuits and cakes are therefore unlikely to be helpful when it comes to losing weight,” says Rick.
“What’s more they reinforce a sweet food habit which works against weight loss.”
With low-fat dairy products manufacturers often achieve the desired creaminess by adding skimmed milk powder and vegetable gums.
These raise the protein content of the product to increase satiety which is a good thing for helping you lose weight.
“But if extra sugar is also added to compensate for loss of flavour, as often happens with ice cream and frozen desserts, you may be defeating the purpose of using them,” Rick says.
The ingredients list for low-fat food is often longer than its full-fat equivalent as manufacturers attempt to replace the taste lost when the fat is removed.
“This can result in lots of artificial flavourings and colourings being used.
“Food additives in the UK are subject to rigorous safety testing but many people prefer a more natural diet for good health.
“The ‘cleaner’ and simpler your diet is, the easier it is to find culprits if you suffer any food problems too, such as allergies and intolerances.”
“Healthy, easy, low-fat eating means having low-fat milk and yogurt, cutting down on butter and cheese and cutting the fat off meat,” says Dr Lee Hooper, who ran a study for the World Health Organisation. “Have fruit instead of fatty snacks such as biscuits, cake and crisps.”
Don’t take it to extremes. This is a way of life not a diet. “Work out a way of eating that you can stick to permanently.” Finally think about portion control.
“Just because a food ticks certain weight-loss boxes it doesn’t mean you have a free pass to eat as much of it as you like,” Rick adds.
Opt for high-fibre, wholegrain crackers that are low in fat (under 3g per 100g).
Skimmed or semiskimmed milk
It may seem as if there’s only a small difference in the fat content between these and full-fat milk but when you consider how much milk you consume each day it can make a big difference in total fat, saturated fat and calories.
This is loaded with calories and fat especially saturates so it makes sense to choose the light version which tends to be lower in both. Check labels as varieties vary.
Low-fat or light cream cheese and sour cream
Remember reduced-fat doesn’t mean low-fat so check the fat per 100g.
Some have as little as 5g fat per 100g (compared with 30-35g fat for regular versions).
Don’t be tempted to super-size your portion.
Edam or reduced-fat cheddar
Regular Edam has 25 per cent fat and reduced-fat cheddar has 22 per cent, better than the 35 per cent in regular hard cheese. However still eat them sparingly.
Low-fat natural yogurt
This is simply the regular version with the fat trimmed down, a bit like skimmed milk. However the key is in the word “natural”.
Flavoured variations can be loaded with sugar and additives so compare labels for sugar, fat and calories.
In general regular natural yogurt is a better choice for you than a light flavoured one that contains sugar.
Understand the different types of fat. Focus on reducing your intake of saturates.
Opt for reduced-fat dairy, such as skimmed and semi-skimmed milk, reduced-fat cheese and fat-free or low-fat natural yogurt and fromage frais. The fat removed isn’t replaced by anything.
Choose lower-fat spreads which have less fat and fewer calories than butter.
Reduced-fat doesn’t mean “low-fat”. By law it means a product contains 30 per cent less than the standard product. It may still be a considerable amount.
Read the labels and compare the nutritional content in 100g. Compare with calories and portion size. If the lower-fat product is not lower in calories look at why.
Remember there’s no magic formula for weight loss. Watch portion sizes and eat a diet including lean proteins, reduced-fat dairy products, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, veg, fruits and pulses, plus heart-friendly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.