Why we need to stop buying ‘lower fat’ things
By Prudence Wade. Published 2020-09-09
Food labels can be misleading.
Diet trends broadly go in waves – in the early 2010s people were obsessed with the 5:2 diet, and in the Nineties and Noughties it was all about vilifying carbs. But before this – in the Eighties – it was all about everything and anything low-fat.
The craze for lower fat products isn’t quite as intense as it was 30 years ago, but if you go to your local supermarket you’ll find the shelves packed with loudly-branded versions of low-fat yoghurts, spreads and cheeses.
The phrase “lower fat” certainly sounds appealing if you’re trying to slim down, but at what cost? We spoke to MedicSpot GP Dr Abby Hyams to get the low-down on low-fat.
It doesn’t necessarily mean something’s low in fat
The NHS website warns you to be careful when it comes to “lower fat” branded products: “If the type of food in question is high in fat in the first place, the lower fat version may also still be high in fat.”
Hyams is concerned about how misleading branding can be. “It can be claimed that a product is ‘lower fat’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘lite’ or ‘light’ as long it has at least 30% less fat than similar products,” she explains. “For example, mayonnaise typically has a high-fat content and low-fat varieties of mayonnaise are likely still high in fat content.”
They could potentially be high in calories
It might be a faff when you’re rushing through the supermarket, but it’s well worth your time to check through the ingredients list on the products you’re buying, because slogans like ‘low-fat’ don’t always tell the full story.
You’ve got to ask the question – how did that food become magically reduced in fat? “Sometimes low-fat products can have a similar amount of calories because the fat is replaced with sugar,” Hyams explains. “If you’re concerned about the amount of fat you are eating, it’s best to check the nutritional information on the label and find out exactly how much fat a product has.”
As a rule, you should be opting for whole foods wherever possible – and be wary of any ingredients you can’t pronounce or don’t recognise.
Fats aren’t the devil – in moderation
Fats are one of the three macronutrients we all need to survive, the others being carbohydrates and protein. Now, we’re not saying you should start eating fats with reckless abandon, but it’s not worth trying to cut them out completely – it provides you with energy and is a source of fatty acids, which your body can’t make on its own.
There’s a difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats tend to come from meat and dairy products, as well as some plant foods – think fatty meat, cheese, butter and coconut oil. Too much saturated fat can raise your cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
“However, it’s important to consider that not all fats are bad and a small amount of fat is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet,” explains Hyams. “While we should all be making an effort to reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diet, unsaturated fats can be beneficial to us. Foods which contain unsaturated fats include avocados, olive oil and some nuts.”
So is it worth hunting down lower fat versions of your favourite food? Not necessarily – Hyams says: “For some people, replacing saturated fat with some unsaturated fat will be a better way of reducing the amount of saturated fat they consume than by simply switching to low-fat branded products.”
FYI – the government recommends men shouldn’t have more than 30g of saturated fat a day, and this is 20g for women. It’s recommended that fats make up no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake, and only 11% of this should be saturated.
- BDA Association of UK Dietitians