The Low Down on Low-Fat Foods

For years we have been told that to be healthy, watch our weight and keep our cardiovascular system in check we should avoid dietary fats, particularly saturated fats. But are these low-fat foods and diets really as good for us as we are led to believe?

Supermarket aisles are laden with low-fat yogurts, milks, cheeses and ready-made meals, fat-free desserts, biscuits and lollies. While these presumed “healthier” choices appear limitless, Australian waistlines keep on expanding.

The low-fat movement all started in the 1970s when a major report came out, identifying dietary fat, specifically saturated fat, as the single most important change that needed to be made in order to improve diet and health. The recommendation was for people to significantly reduce their saturated fat intake and replace it with more vegetable oils. This was thought to ultimately reduce cholesterol levels and protect cardiovascular health.

The problem that evolved is that food companies began replacing animal fats with unsaturated vegetable oils and large amounts of sugars. Why? Because removing the fat from foods meant they had to replace it with something to enhance the taste and texture. However the calorie content often remained the same, yet food companies were able to claim “low-fat” and “no-fat” on their products. On top of this the vegetable oils were put through a process called hydrogenation to produce a solid form easier to work with in foods. We now know that hydrogenated fats increase levels of trans fats, which are both bad for the heart and our cholesterol.

It’s taken many decades and much bad press for our poor friend “fat”, but what is now known is that this bad reputation originally began by a misinterpretation of a flawed study all those years go. What the study actually showed was that the subjects had only a temporary reduction in cholesterol, coupled with an increase in mortality rates! So it turns out saturated fat is not the enemy (trans fats found in hydrogenated oils are), it’s essential for health, we just need to get the right balance of the right types of fat. In fact, research now shows that eating the right fats can actually lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and improve your cholesterol levels.

It is easy to get confused about fats – so what fats should you be eating for optimal health? Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and 6) are the fats our body cannot make, but needs for a variety of important functions – for maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and for a healthy nervous system. They are found in oily varieties of fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and their oils.

Saturated fats are primarily found in animal foods, but are also found in coconut oil and cocoa butter. If you are consuming a dairy product choose full fat (organic is best as fat holds onto pesticides) as not only will you feel fuller for longer, you are consuming all the fat soluble vitamins that would otherwise be removed in a low fat/fat free version. However, if you have health concerns and your practitioner has recommended you address your saturated fat intake avoiding dairy or choosing reduced fat may be a better option.

Remember incorporating a healthy balance of fat in your diet will not only optimise your overall health, but also provides many other important nutrients found in fat-containing whole foods.