The Skinny on Fat-Free Foods

Attaining and maintaining a healthy weight is an ongoing battle that for many adults involves endless dieting—and a search for a magic bullet to blast away those extra pounds.

One weapon Americans have pinned their hopes on is fat-free foods—but are they effective in helping you battle the bulges?

The truth is that eating fat-free foods won’t necessarily make you lose weight. That’s because it’s the amount of calories you take in, not the amount of fat, that determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain weight.

Used in moderation, though, fat-free foods can help reduce your daily calorie count.

Label logic

The best way to determine if a fat-free food will help you reach your goal of cutting your total calories is to read the nutrition label.

Products labeled no-fat or low-fat can have as many or even more calories than the regular product, and the only way you’ll know this is to read and compare the labels.

It may seem illogical, but when food producers cut the fat out of foods, they have to replace it with something—and that something is often extra sugar or other carbohydrates, which add calories.

It’s also important to check the serving sizes of fat-free foods. For example, if the serving size is one cookie and you grab four, you’ll have to multiply the calories per serving to determine your intake.

Fill ‘er up

Another problem with fat-free foods is their low-level of satiety or their ability to make you feel full. That's why it’s so easy to eat a lot of them—their lack of fat doesn’t satisfy hunger.

Fat in food creates a feeling of fullness—the sense that you’ve had enough to eat. If there’s no fat, it’s more likely you will keep on eating until you’re stuffed, ending up with many more calories than you would have gotten from eating a smaller serving of a food that contained a little fat.

In addition, many people consume larger quantities of low-fat or nonfat foods than they do of regular foods, thinking they will break even. They also rationalize that because they’re eating some low-fat or nonfat foods, they can eat larger servings of foods that aren’t low in fat.

Everything in moderation

You can still include fat-free or low-fat foods in a balanced, calorie-conservative diet. The best use of these foods is as a replacement for full-fat foods, such as salad dressing, sour cream, mayonnaise, and cream cheese.

Focus on adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. These foods are good for you, are essentially fat-free, and have a high level of satiety because they contain fiber.

The bottom line: Don’t put too much faith in products labeled fat-free at the expense of making smarter decisions about portion size, your overall diet, and the amount of exercise you get. These are the real keys to a healthy weight.