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Healthy Living

The Facts on Dietary Fat and Lower-Fat Foods

Sometimes it seems as though dietary fat is the most important thing in everyone's lives. Newspapers and magazines are filled with articles about the dangers of eating too many high-fat foods. Supermarket shelves overflow with reduced-, low- and non-fat foods, and virtually every person you talk to is trying to trim the fat from his or her diet! With all of this attention to fat, one would think that Americans are pretty well versed on the subject. Nevertheless, misconceptions about fat -- especially about reduced-fat foods and their role in the diet -- pop up frequently in conversations and articles on health. Here, with the help of some nutrition and food experts, are the facts with which to combat the "myth-information" about dietary fats and low-fat foods.

The following claims are defined for one serving:

Fat-free

Less than 0.5 gram fat

Low fat

3 grams or less fat

Reduced or less fat

At least 25% less fat*

Light

One-third fewer calories and/or 50% less fat*

* As compared with a standard serving size of the traditional food

Myth:    Americans have successfully cut the amount of fat in their diets.

Fact:

While many of us could benefit if this were true, in actuality Americans are not eating less fat, but have decreased the percent of calories that comes from fat in our diets. This may sound like semantics, but it is not-there is a real explanation. According to Ronette Briefel, Dr.P.H., R.D., Senior Research Epidemiologist and Nutrition Policy Advisor at the National Center for Health Statistics, "Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Americans decreased their intake of total fat from about 37 percent of calories to about 34 percent of calories. Yet, during this same time period, average adult calorie intake increased by approximately 300 calories," adds Briefel. This increase in caloric consumption explains why the decline in percent of total calories from fat can be confusing. Fat consumption actually increased from around 81 grams per day in the late 1970s to about 83 grams per day in the early 1990s. As you can see, there is still room for improvement with regard to nutrition.

Myth:    Reduced-fat foods are always low in fat.

Fact:

These foods are definitely lower in fat, but that does not necessarily mean they are "low fat." To know the facts, read the nutrition label and compare the fat content of two similar products with the same serving size.

The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have set specific regulations on allowable product descriptions (see following table).

How Fat Replacers Can Help Reduce Fat and Calorie Intake

This sample menu shows the difference in the fat and calories that foods containing fat replacers can make. Be savvy and sensible. Keep in mind that portion size still counts.

 

 

 

Regular Lunch

 

 

 

Calories

Fat(g)

2 slices bread

130

2

1 oz. American Cheese

105

9

2 oz. bologna

180

17

1 tbs. mayonnaise

100

11

1 banana

105

0

2 chocolate cookies(30 grams)

140

6

 

760

45

 

 

 

Fat Replaced Lunch

 

 

2 slices bread

130

2

1 oz. reduced-fat cheese product

75

4

2 oz. fat-free bologna

40

0

1 tbs. low-fat mayonnaise/dressing

25

1

1 banana

105

0

2 reduced-fat chocolate cookies (30 grams)

120

3

 

495

10

Myth:    Fat-free and lower-fat foods are the solution to obesity.

Fact:

These foods can definitely play a part in an overall effort to lose weight, but consuming them will not undo a myriad of other dietary downfalls, or make up for a lack of physical activity. Successful weight loss-and weight maintenance-depends on achieving the right mix of diet and physical activity. To lose weight, you need to take in less energy (eat fewer calories) than you expend (or "work off") through physical activity. Combining dietary modifications to reduce calories and fat with a consistent physical activity plan is usually the most effective way to lose weight.

For many people, reducing their fat consumption is easier and more "painless" when they can substitute fat-free or lower-fat versions of foods for their regular-fat counterparts. Aside from the fact that a diet consisting mainly of fat-free and lower-fat foods will not guarantee slimness, experts remind us that a healthful diet is not defined by the number of fat-free foods it contains. "Healthful eating efforts need to shift from focusing only on fat-or its absence-to a combined focus on increasing nutrient density and reducing fat at the same time," says Bruce German, Ph.D., professor and John E. Kinsella Endowed Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California-Davis. In other words, we should strive to consume foods that are not simply low in fat but are, on balance, high in nutrients. German explains one way to think about reduced-fat foods in this context: "The lack of fat in a food provides the eater with more opportunities to get nutrients from other foods, while keeping the fat content of the diet in line."

Myth:    Americans are getting fatter because they are overeating fat-free and low-fat foods.

Fact:

Americans do weigh more than their ancestors, and surveys indicate Americans are eating more calories. "However, the increase cannot be attributed to overeating fat-free and low-fat foods," according to Madeleine Sigman-Grant, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of the Department of Food Science, the Pennsylvania State University. "There is a definite lack of data to support the idea that low-fat and fat-free foods are making us fatter. In fact, the increase in American obesity rates precedes the influx of fat-free and low-fat foods into the marketplace." Obesity occurs when far more calories are consumed than are used by the body. And the fact is, research shows that lower-fat, lower-calorie foods can help cut total calorie intake when they are eaten as part of a well-balanced and calorie-controlled diet.

So, if low-fat and fat-free foods have not "backfired" on those of us trying to lose weight, what is increasing our national girth? Many experts believe that a lack of daily physical activity is a major factor in the weight gain equation. According to Dr. Briefel, "Physical activity has not increased to a large extent in the population as a whole, as noted in the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity."

Myth:    Low-fat means low calorie.

Fact:

Not always. Reducing the amount of fat in a food does not necessarily mean it is lower in calories. In fact, a lower-fat food can have nearly as many calories as its higher-fat counterpart. How can this be? In order to manufacture fat-free and low-fat products that are acceptable to consumers in taste and consistency, other ingredients may be added or modified. The best bet is to refer to the Nutrition Facts panel on the product label. It lists fat and calorie content, as well as what portion size is considered a "serving." Also, make moderation a motto at mealtime-do not go overboard with any food, whether it is low in fat or not.

Myth:    Fat-free means taste free.

Fact:

If you have not tasted a fat-free food for some time, you probably remember the experience as somewhat less than satisfying. Food manufacturers acknowledge that many of the first fat-free products on the market did not meet consumers' taste expectations. However, the commitment to making good-tasting fat-free foods is clearly evident in today's marketplace, and has resulted in some undeniably tasty products.

If the thought of going "cold turkey" and switching from full-fat foods to some fat-free choices seems too drastic a dietary measure for you, try some of the reduced-fat and low-fat versions. A little fat can go a long way in adding both flavor and texture to a food. And do not make the mistake of thinking you need to take an all-or-nothing approach to reducing fat in your diet. Small decreases in fat consumption can make a very big difference in your diet and health.

Myth:    Not all calories are created equal.

Fact:

Simply put, a calorie is a calorie. Whether a calorie comes from fat, carbohydrate or protein, it is still a calorie. An important thing to remember is that "calories in" must equal "calories out," or you will gain (or lose) weight. Al-though research in the area is still ongoing, some studies have suggested that excess calories from fat are more easily converted to body fat, as opposed to excess calories from carbohydrate or protein. Nevertheless, a diet devoid of fat is not a healthy one-some dietary fat is necessary for good health.

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