Are Low-Fat Foods Making You Fat?

Why foods stripped of fat can actually cause you to pack on the pounds.

Are Low-Fat Foods Making You Fat?

Picture this: You’re in the snack aisle of the grocery store and as your hand is reaching for the Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies you remember your upcoming tropical vacation, your new bikini and the fact that your sister-in-law (whose baby weight “just fell right off”) will also be there. So instead your hand makes a swift move to the right and grabs the fat-free chocolate cookies instead.

It sounds logical—you eat low-fat foods, you lose weight—but studies show that the opposite is more likely.

That’s because sticking a low-fat label on food can trick you into believing that tasty bag of cookies is better for you than the full-fat version. “People automatically perceive low-fat and fat-free products as healthier or lower in calories, so they don’t worry as much about watching their portions,” explains Joy Bauer, R.D., nutrition and health expert for NBC’s “Today” show. “And food companies know this so they try to use this to their advantage when labeling products. But just because a product is low in fat doesn’t mean you have carte blanche to eat as much as you want…those calories still count!”

Reduced-fat foods are often perceived as having a health halo—that they’re so good for you, they reside in a calorie-free zone—so people tend to supersize their portions without being wracked with guilt. In fact, when people are given foods marked as low fat, they chow down 25 to 44 percent more calories than when foods are labeled as regular fat, according to Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” and director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.

MORE: The Saturated Fat Situation

They also underestimate the total number of calories they’re consuming. Most snack foods are lower in calories only by about 11 percent compared to their full-fat versions, according to Wansink, yet typically, people believe that low-fat foods are 44 percent lower in calories. What’s more, “they believe they are entitled to eat more because they sacrificed by eating a low-fat food,” says Wansink.

Adds Bauer, “people feel virtuous for choosing low-fat ice cream over the full-fat regular kind so they might order a large instead of a small. But just because foods are low-fat or fat-free doesn’t mean they’re low in calories, and controlling calories—not fat—is most important when it comes to losing pounds.”

For example, reduced-fat peanut butter has almost as many calories as regular peanut butter, according to Bauer, and low-fat cookies have more carbs and sugar than regular cookies and about the same number of calories.

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