Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fat Free Does Not Equal "Calorie Free"

Are you trying to lose weight? Looking at labels to find the best foods to eat to help you in your quest? Beware the misleading food labels! One of the most falsely held beliefs is that when you find a food that is fat free, you can eat all you want. And that's often what the manufacturers want you to think. They blatantly advertise in large letters, "a fat free food!" on items like jelly beans and other candies; on salad dressings; even on sodas that aren't diet!

If you know that fat provides calories, you may assume that foods without fat contain fewer calories. But this is not always the case. Calories are provided by carbohydrates, protein, and even some artificial sweeteners. Let's take a look at the calorie content of some fat-free foods.

Candy bars containing chocolate or nuts have a significant portion of their calories derived from the fat content. But there are also calories from the sugar. Candy that does not contain chocolate or nuts, such as lollipops, chewy types like starburst, solid sweets like skittles, or marshmallow-type treats, can still contain hundreds of calories per serving. Even if they are fat free.

Spreads and dressings
Since virtually all of the calories in butter, margarine, salad dressings, or mayonnaise is from fat, it's probably logical to assume that 'fat free' dressings or mayos have no calories--but this is not accurate. The fat is replaced with another substance to give the product the same creamy texture, and often more sugars are added to help the flavor and texture as well. For example, a regular ranch dressing provides 145 calories in 2 tablespoons (about 15 grams of fat and 1 gram carbohydrate). A low-fat ranch has 80 calories (7 grams of fat and 3 grams carbohydrate), and fat-free provides 50 calories, 0.3 grams fat, and 11 grams of carbohydrate. As the fat goes down, the calories drop significantly but not altogether. Using less dressing would help just as much as pouring on large amounts of the fat free kind!
Regular mayo has 90 calories and 10 grams of fat in one tablespoon, while the lowfat variety has 45 calories, half the fat, and a gram of carbohydrate. Fat-free mayo provides 15 calories with 3 grams of carbohydrates.
If you use the same amount of a fat-free product compared to its full-fat (or even low-fat) counterpart, you can save quite a few calories--but if you use all you want because you think the food is free of calories, those calories can add up quickly and sabotage your weight loss efforts.

Snack foods
Probably the most abused category of fat free foods is the snack food items. Products such as chips and cookies that advertise "low fat" or "fat free" (think 'baked instead of fried') can often have a significant number of calories per serving. The bigger problem is that people tend to eat more than one serving, believing they can afford to increase their intake since the food does not have fat.
One example of a low-fat food that doesn't differ much in calories from the regular version is oreo cookies. The low fat cookie has 50 calories; the regular oreo has 54. Hardly an instance where you could afford to eat several more of the lower fat treat.
Lay's regular potato chips provide 150 calories per ounce (from 10 grams of fat and 15 grams of carbohydrate); the Baked Lays: 130 calories, 1.5 grams fat and 26 grams carbohydrate. Slightly fewer calories, again, but more carbohydrates which translate into more calories than you thought.

The bottom line is, if you are watching your fat intake you can reduce the grams of fat by finding appropriate substitute products. But not all those who announce "low fat" on their label are giving you what you expect. Ask yourself what your intent is in trying to reduce your fat intake. If it's to reduce calories, you need to be reading about those on the label, as well as the all-important portion size to be sure exactly what is in the amount you eat. And if you are trying to reduce fat and calorie intake your best bet would be to reduce the frequency and portions of spreads, candies, and snack foods.

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