Why fat-free products can make you gain weight

Low-fat diets and food can actually hinder your weight loss goals. Find out which fats to avoid and the good, healthy fats you can eat more of
jar of yogurt and strawberries Getty Images

Did you know that obesity rates soared just when all those fat-free products started hitting the supermarket shelves? The word “fat-free” definitely make for enticing packaging, but we now know they aren't a golden ticket to weight loss.

Fat-free, but full of salt and sugar Besides getting a nice insulin surge from fat-free products, we also run the risk of overeating. Eating fats help us feel full and prevents overeating by stimulating the release of leptin and CCK – hormones in the brain that tell us when we're full. If our meals are devoid of fat, our brain takes much longer to give the stop eating signal.

Remember, fat adds both flavour and texture (just consider whole eggs versus egg whites). You remove the fat, but end up needing to boost the carbohydrates, sodium, sugar and starch to compensate – making the food become more and more processed. Not a good recipe for weight loss (or health, for that matter).

One of my favourite examples of fat-free offenders to avoid is non-fat, fruit-flavoured yogurt. Next time you are in the grocery store, check its carb content. Then put it back on the shelf! Another good example is full-fat mayonnaise versus low-fat mayonnaise. In the latter, a few ingredients have been added: high fructose corn syrup and/or corn starch. So while you're watching your fat intake and cutting calories, you're packing on pounds and sending your insulin through the roof.

The calories add up I encourage you to carefully look at portion sizes and nutrition labels when considering fat-free products. For example, some foods may be considered fat-free in tiny portions, but if you eat a larger amount, even that small bit of fat per serving adds up. In other cases, the full-fat version and the low-fat alternative contain almost the same number of calories. Low-fat ice cream, for example, has 80 calories per scoop, whereas the full-fat version is only 95 calories. Companies simply add sugar and vegetable gums to low-fat ice creams to make up for the lack of taste and volume. In fact, eating a diet that’s lower in carbs, not lower in fats, is the best way to lose weight. In a 2010 study, researchers found obese women with insulin resistance lost more weight after three months on a lower-carbohydrate diet than on a traditional low-fat diet with the same number of calories. So clearly, fat-free foods don’t equate to fat-free bellies.

Choose the right fats Recently the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) nutrition experts encouraged the public to steer away from “low-fat” thinking and terminology, and focus on cutting out trans fats and eating healthy fats instead. The truth is, we need to eat healthy fat in order to lose body fat and keep our hormones revving. Instead of opting for fat-free, start focusing on choosing the right fats and avoiding those that sit high on the list of hormone-hindering foods. Here is a handy chart below that you can print and post on your fridge.

 Type of fat  Food sources  Risks/Benefits
Monounsaturated fat Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados Aids appetite control, lowers harmful LDL cholesterol, reduces inflammation, promotes heart health
Polyunsaturated fat Vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower.Omega-3s: flaxseed oil, omega-3 eggs, deepwater fish and fish oil, walnuts and walnut oil.Omega-6s: raw nuts, seeds, legumes, borage oil, grapeseed oil and primrose oil. Can lower good HDL cholesterol if eaten in excess; can promote inflammation. Balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is very important. Allergies, eczema, inflammatory conditions (e.g., arthritis, colitis), constipation, attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities have all been linked to a deficiency of this precious fat.
 Saturated fat Red meats (beef, pork and lamb), dairy products.Note: coconut oil is a saturated fat, but it's good for you. Raises harmful LDL cholesterol and increases inflammation when eaten in excess.
 Trans fatty acids (may appear on labels as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” fats) Margarines, snack foods, many packaged foods, microwave popcorn and fried foods Increases bad LDL cholesterol and decreases good HDL cholesterol. There is no safe level of intake for trans fats!

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and her newest release, The Supercharged Hormone Diet, now available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.


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