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Are Reduced-Fat Foods Really Better?

Studio 5 Health and Fitness Contributor Melanie Douglass shares some things to think about before buying a reduced-fat food.

I recently spent more hours than I care to admit in a couple grocery stores; I took it aisle-by-aisle and food-by-food and reviewed all the reduced-fat foods, comparing them to their full-fat alternatives. My findings were actually a bit of a surprise: sixty-percent of the foods I analyzed were more healthful as the reduced-fat version. Food trends are ever changing, so it's never black or white, but if you take a minute to check food labels, you'll be making informed decisions - and that's always a step in the right direction.

Here are some things to think about before buying a reduced-fat food:
Reduced fat doesn't mean low fat… It just means "reduced". If a food has 20 grams of fat per serving and is then reduced to 15, that doesn't make it healthy - it just makes it less unhealthy.

Is it a food you planned to eat?
If you go to the store fully expecting to buy cream cheese, then ok, get a reduced-fat version… you're lessening the damages.

However, if you have no intention of eating Oreos, but buy a package because, eh, they were reduced-fat… then you just added unnecessary calories to your day. Plus, if you have a hard time stopping at 3 Oreos (the recommended portion size), it's frighteningly easy to add ALOT of unplanned calories to your day.

Reduced-fat dairy and dressings are always better
When it comes to sour cream, cream cheese, cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, whipped topping, and mayo, the reduced-fat versions are flat-out better. The difference is worth it, they don't add chemical fillers, and the positive impact on your health is substantial.

All other foods are questionable and need a quick label comparison to see if it's really worth it.

Label Comparison: Do the 1-2-3.

If you can answer yes to each of these questions, then "YES!" the reduced fat version is absolutely better for your health.

1) Does the reduced-fat food have 3 grams (or less) of fat per 100 calories?

If so, they've lowered the fat enough to make it a "low-fat" food, and it's likely a good healthy choice.

2) Are the same ingredients in the same order on the ingredient list?

If so, go for it! That's a good sign and simply means the food manufacturer used less (or no) fat without adding chemical fillers or sugar.

I am very likely to walk away from a reduced-fat food if, in place of fat, I see:

- sugar
- high fructose corn syrup
- corn syrup
- maltodextrin
- glycerin
- propylene glycol monoesters

3) Can you stop at 1 portion? (okay, fine, maybe 2)

Reduced-fat foods were created for a reason… they are the spawn of foods we need to eat less of - and that means with some portion control. Try not to buy reduced-fat ice cream if, in your head, it means you can have twice as much.

A Final Fat Note:

Fat has a bad rap. Although most people want to get as far away from fat as possible, the fact is, we all need fat in our diet. Some fats are good and some are bad. Take a look at the chart below to help you sort your fats, but remember, "healthy" doesn't need you need more. It's not about adding fat to your diet… it's about replacing bad fats with good fats. Try to cut out the packaged foods while eating more fresh foods and plant oils from salad dressings, olive/canola oil, nuts and seeds.

fat chart

Type of Fat Class Recommended Food Sources


*based on 2,000 calorie diet
Monounsaturated Healthy ~ 20 grams Canola, olive and peanut oil; avocadoes, olives, nuts, seeds & peanut butter
Polyunsaturated Healthy ~ 15 grams Sunflower, soybean and safflower oil (these oils are found in almost all packaged foods and salad dressings) & seafood
(a type of polyunsaturated fat)
Healthy ~ 3 - 6 grams Fish, flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil
Saturated fat Unhealthy <20 grams per day Widespread: treats, chips, packaged foods, meats, cheese & coconut oil
Trans fat Unhealthy < 2 grams per day Fried foods, margarine & other hydrogenated oils

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