Are "Fat Free" Foods Healthy for My Lipid Levels?

Knowing which fats to select will help keep your cholesterol levels in check.. svanhorn - istockphoto

When you first decided to watch your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, one of the first things you probably started doing when beginning your diet was to shop for healthier foods. One way you likely did this – besides loading up on produce - was to look for foods labeled “fat-free”. After all, if it says “fat-free” on a package, this should mean that the food contains no fat and should, therefore, be a healthy food to include in your lipid-lowering diet, right?

Not quite.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers can label their foods as “fat-free” only if they contain less than 0.5 grams of total fat per serving listed on the label. “Total fat” includes saturated fat and trans fat. Therefore, it is possible for the Nutritional Facts label to state that there are 0 grams of total fat, even though, in reality, there is a trace amount of unhealthy fats present in the food. Although these foods are lower in fat than their high-fat counterparts, they can add up if you consume a lot of servings of the food in one sitting. If a food is classified as 100% fat-free, it not only fits the above criteria, but it also contains less than 0.5 grams of fat per 100 grams of food product and has no fat added to the product.

However, fats are not the only ingredient you should worry about if you are following a lipid-lowering diet. Refined sugars are another ingredient added to some foods that could also adversely affect your lipid levels if you consume a lot of them.

Research has shown that not only can consuming foods elevate your triglyceride levels, they can also lower your HDL cholesterol. Unfortunately, when food manufacturers reduce the amount of fat in a number of foods labeled fat-free, this usually results in an increase in refined sugars added to these foods to maintain their taste and consistency.

If you decide to eat a lot of servings of your favorite fat-free food, this could translate to many grams of fat and calories heaped onto your diet. Just because something is labeled as “fat-free,” it doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want to. There are many other ways to add fat free foods to your healthy diet without sacrificing on nutrients, such as:

  • Swapping out your quick, microwaveable, fat-free meals with meals prepared with fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  • Experimenting with different types of spices, instead of selecting an all-purpose seasoning agent labeled as "fat-free".
  • Instead of grabbing a pre-packaged, fat-free snack, look for healthy finger foods, such as whole-grain granola or a piece of fruit. Some foods, such as such as nuts and seeds, contain unsaturated fats, which is a healthy fat to include in your heart-healthy diet.

These tips will allow you to have delicious foods that are low in saturated fat and sugar in your meal plan – without sacrificing other nutrients that may be lost during the food manufacturing process.

Sources:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (9. Appendix A: Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims) 2013.  Website: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm064911.htm#ftntAccessed 29 October 2015.

Rolfes SR, Whitney E. Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed 2013.

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