Why Low Fat Foods Could Be Making You Fat

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With so many of today’s food labels including the words ‘less carbs’, ‘less fat’, ‘less sugar’ and ‘less sodium’, nowadays you would be hard pressed to find a person who does not have some kind of low or non-fat food product in their kitchen. Yet as HEALTH discovers, these so called low-fat foods may be in fact causing more harm than good and ultimately making you gain weight rather than lose it.

Why Low Fat Foods Could Be Making You Fat

Suzanne Marshall* from Dubai is an admitted yo yo dieter who embraces any new diet that comes out and in her quest to lose just 15 kilos, only buys low-fat or non-fat food items for herself. Yet despite it all, she is still not losing the weight. She tells, “I have about 15 kilos I need to shed and yes I do exercise and eat healthy. I also make the effort to only buy foods that are low fat. I only drink diet sodas also to avoid the calories and I only use artificial sweeteners for my tea. But for some reason not only am I not losing any weight, I seem to be slightly bloated and feel tired all the time…Am I doing something wrong?” (*name changed)


The Sad Paradox

With all of us trying to get slimmer and look better, many of us are turning to low fat salad dressings, low fat cookies, and low-fat milk; and even using margarine and artificial sweeteners in our ceaseless chase to shed that excess weight. Further elaborating, Licensed Dietician Riham Shamseddine, at the Right Bite Nutrition Centre in Dubai explains, “The demand for low-fat foods has dramatically increased in the past few years, as people are becoming more health conscious.” Yet the paradox has been that despite this trend and mass availability of these kinds of foods and beverages, she points out that still the obesity rates and risk of diseases has not gotten any better.

Key Ingredients in These Kinds of Foods

What is the real reason that these foods considered low in low fat? According to Shamseddine, in order to decrease the fat percentage in some food items, food industries need to modify the foods with many additives in order to avoid sacrificing the taste of the original ‘high in fat’ product and make it pleasant and palatable for the consumer. “And most of those additives are fibers, proteins, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers,” she says, added to render the same enjoyment we would experience whilst consuming full fat food items.

The Label

Reading a food label is paramount in order to clarify exactly what we are eating. Furthermore, Shamseddine elaborates that if we read the label of our low-fat food item, we may just see the following fat or nutritional claims; these include fat-free at less than 0.5grams fat per serving or a percent fat free which is based on 100grams. “When a product meets the definition of low fat or is one hundred percent fat free, a claim can be made when a product meets the definition of fat free and contains no added fat,” she says. “Also there is low-fat which means 3grams or less fat per serving and finally, reduced or less fat which is 25 percent or less fat per serving than regular product.”

The Reasoning

Three recent studies done by the Food and Brand Lab found that putting low– fat labels on snack foods encouraged people to eat up to 50 percent more than those who saw labels without the low fat claim. Basically just seeing the words ‘low–fat’ actually motivated people in these studies to consume 84 extra calories simply due to the “low–fat” label on a product which makes them wrongly assume it has fewer calories. On average, participants underestimated the calorie content of “low–fat” M&Ms and granola by 48 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

So why do low–fat labels cause people to overeat? One of the three studies found that giving participants a food with a “low–fat” label caused them to increase their perception of an appropriate serving size by 25.1percent, regardless of whether a participant was overweight or normal weight. Additionally, participants believed that foods labelled as “low–fat” had about 260 fewer calories, and all participants said they would feel less guilty for eating “low–fat foods,” especially granola.

Also in order to make fat-free foods palatable, food producers must add something to the foods. The reason is because when you take away the fat in a food, it renders the food tasteless. Most notably incorporated is excess sugar which according to experts, is what really makes us fat and is ultimately stored in our fat cells. Sugar makes us want to eat more and ultimately prevents us from losing weight.

Diet foods and Healthy Substitutes

Sugar free cookies and sugar free candies

Shamseddine reminds us that sugar free does not equate to fat-free. “And when it is sugar free, this means that the food contains artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame which, if over-consumed, could be potentially carcinogenic,” she says, instead she advises we prepare our own homemade oatmeal cookies with a minimum amount of sugar and fat. Pureed apples can be used as a fat substitute while dried fruits can add sweetness.

Breakfast cereals

Breakfast cereals are a very healthy option. However Shamseddine advises that we should always choose the ones that are plain, unsweetened and made from whole-grains.

Low fat Salad dressings

Delicious dressings always make salads more palatable yet Shamseddine recommends that instead we aim to prepare our own salad dressing as the readymade ones often contain a high amount of fat and lots of additives. “We can use condiments such as mustard, balsamic vinegar, herbs and a minimum amount of the heart healthy olive oil,” she advises, as well as Greek yogurt, feta cheese and even a dash of lime juice.

Diet sodas

Recently there has a controversy surrounding the safety and risks in consuming diet sodas. A study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, presented at a recent meeting of the American Diabetes Association, has added to growing research that diet soda is not a “guilt-free” treat at all. Instead, after following 474 diet soda drinkers for nearly 10 years, they found that their waists grew 70 percent more than the waists of non-diet soda drinkers. Further, those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had a 500 percent greater increase in waist size. Recent research has also linked diet soda consumption to higher rates of strokes, heart attacks and other lethal vascular problems as well as metabolic syndrome. Rather than drink sodas at all, Shamseddine advises we replace them altogether with sparkling water with a hint of lemon and mint.

Low fat yogurt

This, points out Shamseddine, is a healthy option. “We just need to bear in mind the amount we are consuming daily based on our calorie needs and to choose plain and unsweetened ones,”
she says. And be sure to select a low-fat yogurt labelled as having live or active cultures because this ensures that the probiotics in the yogurt will work in your body as intended.

Artificial sweeteners

Substances like Splenda and aspartame may have zero calories, but your body isn’t fooled; when it gets that ubiquitous sweet taste, it expects calories to follow. And when this does not happen, it can lead to biochemical distortions in your brain that can ultimately lead to weight gain. “We don’t encourage the consumption of artificial sweeteners as the abuse might be carcinogenic,” says Shamseddine, advising instead to use unrefined sugars, honey and molasses but in very minimal quantities.

Fruit juices

Most of us are under the assumption that while our kids can only drink sodas on treat days or if at all, fruit juices were a healthier option. However, more and more experts are warning that sugary drinks in any form are largely to blame for our growing waistlines. “We encourage the consumption of whole-fruits instead of fruit juices, as fruit juices might contain a lot of sugar even if freshly squeezed,” she says, also a whole fruit is richer in vitamins and fiber too. When we eat a piece of fruit, the fiber forms a protective layer that acts as a barrier to the intestine. This slows absorption of sugar, so the liver has a chance to catch up. In fizzy drinks, fruit juices and smoothies, the barrier has gone, which leads to the liver being overloaded.

Trail mixes and Granola Bars

Some of us use cereal bars as a quick fix for that afternoon slump and think it is a healthier option. However Shamseddine points out that most cereal bars contain loads of sugar. She advises we make our own at home instead using honey or a natural sweetener instead of sugar. If you just have to buy these, then look for the first ingredient to be whole grains, and find granola bars that are high in fiber or without added sugars. Most likely, these varieties will make you fuller longer. And substitute your high sodium crunchy trail mixes with your own homemade blends. “A good homemade trail mix can include some dried fruits with raw and unsalted mixed nuts for a perfect and portable snack,” she says.

Gluten free snacks

From gluten free breads and cookies to even gluten free pizza crust, the wildly popular food ttend ‘gluten free’ seems to be on everyone’s mind these days irrespective of actually being gluten intolerant/sensitive or not. Yet Shamseddine notes that there is no relation between gluten free and low- fat products, as gluten is only the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye and the only time where we need to avoid it is when we have sensitivity to gluten or gluten intolerance

Did you Know?

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, discovered some frightening facts that should make us all swear off diet drinks and products.

  • Diet sodas raised the risk of diabetes more than sugar-sweetened sodas.
  • Women who drank one 12-ounce diet soda had a 33 percent increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and women who drank one 20-ounce soda had a 66 percent increased risk.
  • Women who drank diet sodas drank twice as much as those who drank sugar-sweetened sodas because artificial sweeteners are more addictive and are sweeter than regular sugar.
  • The average diet soda drinker consumes three diet drinks a day.
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