The Low-Fat Dilemma

Have you ever noticed that the “reduced fat” version of snacks don’t taste all too different from the original? Have you ever found yourself curiously munching on it and thinking, “I can have my cake and eat it too!”? The unfortunate truth is that even when a food has “low fat” or “low calories” on its label, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier.

The Big Fat Issue:

Let’s be real. Food tastes better when it has fat in it. When fat is taken out or lowered in a food item, it’s just not the same! The texture, flavor, and mouth feel are just different. This is the dilemma that the food service industry came across with the move towards “low-fat” diets in the 1980’s. The Health and Human Services department and the United States Department of Agriculture sought to decrease the risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other serious health concerns by limiting potentially harmful fats such as trans fats, saturated fats, and cholesterol. This put a challenge on the food industry: How could they make food products that tasted good but had less fat? The solution that most companies found was sugar.

The Sweet Sugar “Solution”, With (a little more than) a Grain of Salt

In order to compensate for the loss of food quality, these “low-fat“ food items needed another ingredient to help the flavor, appearance, mouth-feel, handling, preparation, and shelf-life. This is where sugar and salt came into the picture. Sugar and salt helped to preserve most of what was lost from taking away the fat from foods, and became an easy way to keep the appeal the food while claiming it was “low fat”.

“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. They add up to the same amount of calories, don’t they? When looking out for your health, you’ve got to look beyond the numbers. When we eat simple carbohydrates or foods with added sugars, we quickly absorb these sugars in the bloodstream, unless we have fat or protein to slow the absorption rate. In addition to slowing the absorption rate, fats slow digestion and keep us full for a longer period of time. With the low-fat focus, there was less fat to balance all of the sugar -- welcome sugar highs, sugar crashes, and growling-stomachs. This can lead to problems in blood sugar regulation, which can lead to diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams of sugar (9 teaspoons) for men and 24 grams (6 teaspoons of sugar) for women per day –that’s it! With sugar being added to so many foods nowadays (including peanut butter, dressings, crackers, and tomato sauce), the average intake of sugar in Americans is 58 grams per day.

The Real Solution

I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve got to cut down on fat, now I need to calculate my sugar intake… why is it so hard to simply eat healthy?” Sometimes, it may seem as though the health claims and the nutrition facts label on the packaged food items have a complicated relationship; however, it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it looks! The best way to balance your fat, carbohydrates, and salt intake is by focusing on whole foods. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables, ¼ lean protein and ¼ whole grains.  Legumes can count towards your lean protein servings. Try spices to add flavor instead of using salt, you can find great no-salt spice mixtures in the grocery store. Include healthy olive and vegetable oils instead of butter and margarine, and try to incorporate fish at least once a week while limiting high fat cuts of meat to a few times a week.

*** The DGAC report highlights that more than 70% of the US population consumes too many refined grain products

****DGAC suggesting unlimited amount of fat in diet guidelines with unlimited fat

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