Is “Low-fat” a Cure-All?

Reduced-fat and fat-free foods and beverages continue to soar in popularity, but how helpful are they? That’s the question a lot of people have been asking lately, as Americas’ girth has been growing right along with the popularity of these products.

The answer is: lower fat products can be very beneficial, when incorporated into an overall healthy diet – primarily in two ways. First, they have been conclusively shown to help people reduce the percentage of calories from fat in their diets. Two recent studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritiondemonstrated that even “casual” use of reduced-fat foods can significantly reduce over-all fat intake.

This is a much-needed benefit, given that Americans consume about 34% of calories from fat, still over the 30% level recommended by most health experts. Excess fat intake has been linked to increase risk of obesity, some types of cancer, high blood cholesterol and increased risk for coronary heart disease.

Second, reduced-fat foods and beverages also have been shown to be beneficial in the diets of those who are trying to lose weight, or maintain weight loss. A study of moderately obese women found that a low-fat, ad libitum diet that included reduced-fat foods and beverages “can result in substantial weight loss and is associated with improved platability and QOL (quality of life) compared with an LW (low-energy) diet.” The MSFAT (Multicentre Study on Fat Reduction) study, conducted in The Netherlands, showed that long-term consumption of reduced-fat foods and beverages helped people maintain body weight with no effect on health-related physiological parameters.

The key is moderation. As the American Diabetes Association has noted, the degree to which reduced-fat products assist people in achieving “desired health outcomes,” such as weight reduction “depends on how individuals use these foods to change food choices and eating behaviors.”

Reduced-fat products can help health-conscious consumers allay what surveys have shown to be their greatest fear in trying to lose wight: giving up their favorite foods. A recent survey by the American Dietetic Association found that this fear was the biggest obstacle to eating right cited by American consumers. Reduced-fat foods and beverages let consumers enjoy their favorite foods with unnecessary fat and, in some cases, without unnecessary calories.

Fat Replacers: The Ingredients That Make It Happen

Fat replacers are the ingredients that make these foods and beverages possible. New technology in fat replacement has opened the door for foods and beverages that have the taste and texture of the high-fat versions consumers enjoy, but without the traditional calories, cholesterol or fat.

The American Dietetic Association has stated, “Modern food technology, which can now modify the fat content of foods through the use of fat replacement ingredients, offers help to persons struggling to reduce their fat intake. Many health groups, including ADA, have welcomed development of reduced-fat products as another tool for achieving national dietary goals for reduced fat intake.”

Most fat replacers currently in use are reformulations of previously used food ingredients. Additionally, the food industry has formulated a variety of new fat replacer ingredients by using innovative technologies. The type of fat replacer(s) used in a product depends largely on which properties of fat are being duplicated. The result is that the public benefits, because the availability of a variety of ingredients used as fat replacers provides a greater variety of rich, creamy, good-tasting low-fat foods and beverages for consumers to enjoy.

But What About the Calories?

Much has been made of the fact that many reduced-fat foods have the same calories as full-fat versions. USA Today, in an article earlier this year, portrayed consumers as “abandoning the no-guilt dream and returning to their full-fat fare” when they discovered that the calories were similar. (Note: Data from a wide variety of sources show that consumers are not abandoning low-fat products.)

This broad conclusion ignores the obvious health benefits of reducing the percentage of calories from fat in the diet. In the same article, Dr. Dean Ornish states, “I’m all in favor of the fat-free salad dressings, mayonnaise and cream cheese, especially when they are substituted for the full-fat versions.” Reduced-fat foods and beverages make excellent substitutes for their high-fat counterparts, but not for common sense and good nutrition. Consumers also need to remember that Calories Still Count. Excess calories, no matter where they come from, still end up as extra weight on the body.

The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Problem

So what to make of America’s rise in obesity? Let the experts tell it. A recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that 56 percent of adult Americans are overweight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist Richard Troiano said, “You don’t have to lift your garage door anymore . . . There have been a lot of conveniences that essentially eliminate activity.”

The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health released last year concluded that low levels of activity, resulting in fewer calories used than consumed, contribute to the high prevalence of obesity in the United States.

And earlier this year, researchers writing in The American Journal of Medicine wrote, “The only available explanation for the paradoxical increase in body weight with a decrease in fat and energy intake is that physical activity declined.”

Reduced-fat foods and beverages can help Americans in their battle for weight control, but not if people are just plain sedentary. Combined with a healthy level of physical activity, however, reduced-fat (and light) foods and beverages can be one of the pillars to a healthier weight for all of us.

Susan J. Gatenby, et al, “Extended use of foods modified in fat and sugar content: nutritional implications in a free-living female population,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pp. 1867-73, June, 1997.
Barbara J. Rolls et al, “Sensory properties of a nonabsorbable fat substitute did not affect regulation of energy intake,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pp. 1375-83, May, 1997. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, “The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health,” DHHS Publication No. 88-50211, 1988.
Meena Shah et al, “Comparison of a low-fat, ad libitum complex-carbohydrate diet with a low-energy diet in moderately obese women,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, pp. 980-84, May 1994.
Nicole Zimmermanns and Karin van het Hof, MSFAT-study: The effect of light products on food intake and indicators of health,” April, 1996.
Hope Warshaw et al, “Fat Replacers: Their Use in Foods and Role in Diabetes Medical Nutrition Therapy,” Diabetes Care, pp. 1294-1301, November, 1996.
Nancy I. Hahn, “Replacing fat with food technology,” Journal of The American Dietetic Association, pp. 15-16, January, 1997.
Nanci Hellmich, “No fat, no way: Consumers losing taste for products,” USA Today, February 17, 1997.
Associated Press, “Easy living fattening up Americans, study finds,” March 7, 1997. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, “The Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health,” 1996.
Adrian F. Heini et al, “Divergent Trends in Obesity and Fat Intake Patterns: The American Paradox,” The American Journal of Medicine, pp. 259-64, March 1997.
faq2Do you have questions about low-calorie sweeteners? Want to learn more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle? You asked and we listened. Our resident Registered Dietitians answered the most popular questions about low-calorie sweeteners.