Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

Your Health

Wieldy waistlines: Are low-fat foods making us fat?

Low- and fat-free food products, such as yogurt and crackers, are big sellers at the grocery store. So why are our waistlines so big? Is it possible that these products, which we’re buying to help us lose or maintain a healthy weight, are actually having the opposite effect?

The truth is that we need fats in our diet. Healthful fats are good for us. They help our bodies maintain a normal body temperature, keep our hair and skin healthy and provide benefits at the cellular level.

For example, if we use olive-oil vinaigrette on salad, it helps our bodies better absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in the salad’s healthful ingredients, such as spinach, red bell pepper and cucumber.

Food companies know that people want to lose weight, so they pull the fat from foods and add other ingredients to meet the public’s desire for good-tasting products. Unfortunately, these other ingredients, including sugar, sodium and flavor enhancers, can be far less healthful for us than the fat.

Even so, the food companies’ strategy works, and low- and nonfat products are flying off the shelves. People think that fat-free means calorie-free, but this is seldom the case.

Studies report that people who eat low- and nonfat foods consume 28 percent more calories than if they eat the regular version of the same foods. That’s 137 extra calories per day, which doesn’t sound like a lot. However, keep doing the math and you realize that it equals 49,000 extra calories per year – which could translate into 14 extra pounds on your body in one year.

If you really want to lose weight, the best way is to eat fewer calories and lead a more active lifestyle.

How can we make the best food choices to lose weight or maintain a healthful, balanced diet? Following are three simple strategies.

• Look at the food label. For every 100 calories, look for 3-4 grams of fat. This balance usually means the product will offer good flavor, moisture and texture without adding more sugar and chemicals to distort the food.

• Focus on what you choose to eat, not what you avoid eating. Good fats are found in olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. Oily fish like salmon and tuna are great choices, too. But remember that even healthful fats are fats, and if you eat too much, you’ll gain weight. So eat a healthy portion and use fats to flavor your food, not drown it.

• Use the “plate method” to balance your diet. Your plate should be covered with half fruits and veggies, one-quarter protein and one-quarter healthful carbohydrates such as brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.

To get your waistline under control, follow these steps and try to cook in your own kitchen so that you know the ingredients that are in the foods you’re eating. And remember – healthful fats are an important part of your diet as long as you eat them in moderation.

Tracey Slezak is a registered dietitian and health educator for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Health Management Resources.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.

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