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Are you wondering whether low-fat or fat-free foods are really healthier for you than their full-fat counterparts? This article will not only answer the question, “Is nonfat or low-fat healthy?,” but will also apprise you of some of the unhealthy aspects of many low-fat foods.
I’m guilty of following the fat-free and low-fat trend from the 80’s and 90’s. I assumed that eating fat was unhealthy and would make you fat, because the message at the time was essentially that all fats are unhealthy and low-fat is healthy.
Also, because low-fat and fat-free foods often contain less calories, I figured picking the version with less calories would equate to less weight gain. In my mind, “low-fat healthy foods” were a clear winner for good health.
However, I later learned that fat-free and low-fat foods aren’t always healthier after all. Nor are all fats bad for you. Some can even be good for you.
So, is fat-free or low-fat healthy? Hopefully, this article should clear up confusion on the fat-free and low-fat healthy food craze and how you should approach fats accordingly.
Why Are Fat-Free or Low-Fat Foods So Popular?
The United States’ Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Need published Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977 in an attempt to inform Americans of how they should be eating to stay healthy, particularly against cardiovascular disease. (Interesting side note: opponents believed U.S. Senators should have entrusted the scientific community to inform Americans on what promotes and prevents disease, which makes sense!)
Special interest groups, particularly the meat industry, apparently backlashed against the publication. Thus, even though scientific evidence was lacking to link certain dietary fats (among other dietary components) to heart health, the Senate Committee chairman caved to revise the publication that same year.
The new, revised publication harped on the evils of dietary fats (including saturated fats) and basically promoted a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. Thus, the start of the fat-free and low-fat era began of “fat-free and low-fat healthy foods.”
Foods like eggs (yolks, in particular), full-fat dairy (e.g. butter, milk, cheeses), and fatty meats were considered unhealthy. Whereas “fat-free or low-fat healthy foods” in the form of milk, yogurt, and many other dairy and non-dairy products took off in the decades following the publication.
To date, you can still find many fat-free and low-fat options on supermarket shelves, and people obviously still buy these products to keep the supply going.
(Although, when we go to “natural” supermarkets like Sprouts or Whole Foods, full-fat versions of milk and yogurt are often in higher demand than reduced- or fat-free versions. Thank the word getting out that non-fat and reduced-fat is not actually better for you!)
Is Fat-Free or Low-Fat Healthy?
Is fat-free or low-fat healthy? Many studies have debunked the notion that all fats, including saturated fats, are evil. Research has even supported the opposite. That is, full-fat foods can actually benefit your health (more on that in the next section).
For instance, one study showed that total saturated fat intake did not translate to a higher risk of ischemic heart disease (i.e. heart disease caused by the narrowing of vital heart arteries). To the contrary, the study showed that consuming saturated fat actually lowered the risk for ischemic heart disease.
Another study, among many, concluded that eating eggs has no correlation to developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The study followed participants for up to 20 years and found that people who ate 1+ eggs a day did not have an increased risk for ischemic heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
(Note: eggs were previously bashed for not only saturated fat, but also cholesterol content. The latter could be a concern for some people.)
Research also shows that not only does eating “high-fat” dairy not translate to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic diseases, but that the opposite could be true. That is, some research revealed a link between high-fat dairy consumption and a lower risk for metabolic diseases.
This other study reiterated that saturated fats in the form of medium-chain triglycerides does not affect metabolic functioning and could be part of a weight loss program. (Read more on medium-chain triglycerides in the next section.)
And very interestingly, this study showed that participants who consumed the highest amount of full-fat dairy in the study had a 69% lower incidence of death related to cardiovascular disease than participants who consumed the least amount of full-fat dairy in the study.
Thus, although eating full-fat foods may seem counterintuitive to what so many of us learned and adopted in the past, scientific research actually supports doing so (or at least doesn’t discourage it).
How Full-Fat Foods Can Actually Benefit Your Health
One study showed that MCT impeded a molecule’s ability to incorporate cholesterol. Thus, MCT resulted in lower cholesterol levels.
Another study concluded MCT may improve cognitive abilities on patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Long-chain triglycerides (LCT), in comparison, don’t show the same health effects. LCT is found in foods like in soybean and safflower oil. This study showed that although LCT wasn’t harmful, MCT caused participants to expende more energy and to metabolized more fat than LCT.
Unhealthy Fats to Avoid
Since we’ve discussed how fats aren’t bad for you as a whole, does that mean all fats are okay to eat? No. Two particular types of fats should be avoided.
Artificial Trans Fats
Trans-fatty acids (aka trans fats) come in two varieties: naturally occurring and industrially/artificially made. Natural trans fat is found in meat and dairy from ruminant animals like cows and sheep.
Industrially made trans fat comes from manufacturers adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to solidify it. Thus, the terms “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil appear on food labels to denote trans fats.
Studies show that negative health effects of trans fat include increased bad cholesterol, inflammation in the body, insulin sensitivity, weight gain, and diabetes. Also, trans fat can contribute to heart disease. (See our brief discussion on inflammation in our article on the 6 Incredible Health Benefits of Green Tea and green tea’s ability to help.)
However, is all trans fat considered equal (i.e. natural versus artificial), and is eating low-fat healthy with respect to trans fats?
One study concluded that naturally occurring trans fat does not contribute to coronary heart disease. However, another study concluded that it can negatively affect your body in the same manner as artificial trans fat, but that most people don’t consume enough naturally occurring trans fats to have a notable negative effect.
Another study supported the notion that people needn’t worry about negative health effects from naturally occurring trans fat, because the amount in meat and dairy is relatively small.
This study compared the amount of trans fat naturally occurring in meat and dairy versus the amount of artificial trans fat found in manufactured foods. The amount of artificial trans fat was present in substantially larger rates than those naturally occurring in meat and dairy.
Thus, the main danger of trans fat comes from buying foods with artificial trans fat added.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 polyunsaturated fat linoleic acid is mostly found in industrial vegetable and seed oils. Studies have linked excessive Omega-6 consumption to worsened artery health and heart disease.
Scientists consider most Western diets to contain too many Omega-6 essential fatty acids compared to Omega-3 essential fatty acids. You may have heard of the need to balance Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids in your diet.
This study estimated the Western diet may carry an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of as much as 16.7 to 1 (meaning, most people consume about 16 times more Omega 6 fatty acids than Omega 3 fatty acids in their diet).
The study concluded that too much of an imbalance could result in negative health conditions like heart disease, cancer, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. In contrast, reducing the ratio showed beneficial health effects, including a reduction in colorectal cancer cell growth with a 2.5 to 1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids.
Soybean oil is most commonly found in food items, including “organic” salad dressings, whether in hydrogenated (trans fat) form or not. Soybean oil has a very high Omega 6 fatty acid content.
Other common oils with a high Omega-6 ratio are corn oil, vegetable oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. Thus, you should consume these oils or products containing them sparingly – unless you consume a particularly large quantity of Omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s important to remember that research doesn’t so much bash Omega-6 fatty acids as the imbalance that most people have between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Thus, the goal should be to ensure a better balance between the two fatty acids in your diet.
Examples of foods with Omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, sardines, fish oil supplements, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Another Reason to Avoid Fat-Free or Low-Fat Products
Eating fat-free or low-fat foods can actually cause weight gain and obesity. Why? Because fat helps you feel full, which usually translates into eating a smaller quantity of food.
This study showed that middle-aged women who consumed high-fat dairy products gained less weight than women who consumed low-fat dairy products.
Also, food manufacturers routinely add sugar to fat-free or low-fat products to replace the flavor lost by reducing or eliminating fat.
This study documented how low-fat or non-fat foods routinely had more sugar than full-fat versions in the categories of dairy, meat, baked goods, and salad dressing. Salad dressing and condiments are often the biggest offenders of added sugars in non-fat or low-fat varieties.
Studies have shown that the amount of sugar people consume influences their taste buds. In other words, if you’re used to eating more sugar (including hidden sugars in low-fat foods), then your taste buds will prefer more sugary foods generally. (See our article, What is the Best Alternative Sweetener?, for related discussions.)
It’s no secret that sugar is bad for you. Research has linked sugar consumption to negative health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic diseases, and weight gain. Thus, adding more sugar to your diet never benefits your health.
(Our article, Sneaky Hidden Sugars You May Find in 6 Popular Foods and More, goes into hidden sugars more in-depth, if you want to read about other common sources of sugar in our diet.)
Summary: Is Fat-Free or Low-Fat Healthy?
As we learned, not all fats are evil and bad for our health. Aside from ill effects from consuming too much trans fat and Omega-6 fatty acids (in comparison to Omega-3 fatty acids), research fails to support the outdated recommendation against eating fat.
Plus, many fat-free or low-fat products contain more sugar than their full-fat versions. Given the lack of research discouraging the consumption of naturally occurring fat versus the established research discouraging the consumption of sugar, the choice seems rather obvious to pick full-fat versions.
However, some people may have medical or health conditions that legitimately favor reduced fat diets or avoiding other food components (e.g. cholesterol, lactose, etc.). So, you should always rely on trusted healthcare providers to guide you on the best practices for your health.
Also, your diet as a whole is very important. If you are eating other unhealthy substances (e.g. sugars in the form of refined sugars or carbs), then incorporating or eliminating certain fats won’t guarantee great health. Health is always a combination of healthy eating and lifestyle choices.
Please comment below with any thoughts or questions on this article, because you probably have at least one, and we’d like to hear it!