Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past five years, you know that eating some fat is good for your health. You may even know that including fat in your diet can help you lose body fat and stay lean.
This sensible approach to including fat in your diet is easily forgotten when you hang out with friends who shun fat, or you’re flooded with food labels that proclaim “fat-free” every time you go to the grocery store.
Then there are the annoyingly persistent USDA low-fat guidelines and claims that saturated fat will kill you, making it easy to get sucked into the belief that “fat-free” equals “healthy.”
Here’s the big fat truth: “Non-fat” is the biggest scam ever. If you want to be healthy, lean, and enjoy food, avoid foods labeled fat-free like the plague. Here are five reasons why.
#1: Non-fat foods are junk food in disguise. They are generally jam-packed with sugar and artificial chemicals.
Fat is pretty darn delicious and it provides texture and flavor to food. When you remove it, you generally get pretty blah food. Food manufacturers have tackled this problem by replacing the fat with large amounts of sugar, salt, and artificial sweeteners and flavors to make them taste good.
Diets high in added sugar are bad news because they lead to a large blood sugar spike, which causes the body to release a large amount of insulin. Studies show that the more insulin your body releases in response to sugar or carbs, the less success you’ll have losing body fat when you reduce calories.
In addition, having frequent insulin spikes causes the cells in your body to become resistant to the insulin, which increases your diabetes and disease risk. It also leads to fat gain and makes it harder to put on muscle.
Bottom Line: When you see the label “fat-free” or “low-fat” on the label, that’s a huge warning sign to avoid it. Pick the normal fat version if possible (such as when choosing yogurt or dairy), or look for an alternative food altogether (if it’s a processed food that only exists in the reduced-fat universe).
#2: Non-fat doesn’t help you lose fat and it might make you fat.
Research into how our brains and bodies respond to fat and the lack thereof shows that choosing non-fat foods doesn’t lead to fat loss, and for some people, it makes them gain fat.
First, studies show that compared to foods high in fat, those that are high in sugar but low in fat have been found to activate regions in the brain associated with pleasure and reward. When we eat this foods, we tend to be driven to seek out whatever made us feel good, which in this case is non-fat, sugar-filled food (this is the same part of the brain that is activated by drugs such as cocaine).
Therefore, scientists recommend avoiding reduced fat foods in which sugar is added to provide taste in favor of foods containing fat but are lower in sugar.
Second, diets low in fat don’t provide the body with the building blocks it needs for balanced hormone function, which is necessary for optimal body composition. For example, fat is used to manufacture the androgen hormones that are involved in fat burning, the mobilization of energy stores, and muscle building.
Finally, studies of the effect of low-fat diets on fat loss tend to be disappointing. For example, the large Women’s Health Initiative Trial found that women on a low-fat diet lost zero weight by the end of the study.
One thing that does seem to work for fat loss is to reduce insulin response to meals—something that researchers note is most effectively done by reducing high-carb foods and replacing them with protein, fat, and low-carb plants.
The bottom line: Fat-free eating is unlikely to make you lean and it puts you at risk of gaining fat by a number of mechanisms, including reduced hormonal balance.
#3: The non-fat label provides a health halo that leads people to eat more calories.
The non-fat label is just one of many useless buzzwords that food marketers use to make us think we’re eating healthy. We equate non-fat with lacking calories.
The result is that the non-fat label makes us believe that we’re consuming fewer calories than we actually are. In fact, studies show people eat as much as 35 percent more when eating a food with a “healthy” label than when they think the food is unhealthy.
Bottom Line: When you choose foods that you know are low in fat, you may be more likely to overeat because you think that it’s low in calories. Avoid this by being aware of how much you’re eating and avoid all packaged non-fat foods in favor of whole protein, fat, and plants.
#4: The non-fat mindset leads to less meal satisfaction and more hunger.
Studies show that the non-fat “mindset” actually affects the release of hunger hormones so that we feel less satisfaction after a meal and get hungry sooner. A non-fat mindset is one in which you believe that you are eating something “healthy” that won’t make you gain fat.
For example, a recent study had two groups of people drink the same high-fat milkshake. Researchers told one group the shake was “indulgent” and high in calories and fat. The other group was told it was “sensible” and low in calories and fat.
Amazingly, the group that believed they were indulging had a much steeper drop in ghrelin, the hormone that makes you hungry, whereas the subjects who though they were being sensible had a flat ghrelin response and were still hungry after the milkshake.
Researchers caution that low-fat and fat-free eating casts a health halo that leads us to experience more frequent hunger and eat more calories in the long run, which will obviously lead to fat gain.
The bottom line: Avoid the non-fat mindset in favor of a truly sensible diet that is delicious and balanced around whole food sources of fat, protein, fruits, and vegetables. Go ahead and enjoy “indulgent” foods every so often because you’ll feel more satisfied and have less hunger than if you’re constantly getting sucked in by the non-fat mindset.
#5: Non-fat foods deprive you of vital fat-soluble nutrients that are essential for a peppy metabolism and peak health.
Fats in the right ratio are needed for strong bones, healthy cells, a strong immune system, and lovely skin and eyes. That’s because fats are involved in calcium metabolism, and they provide the fat-soluble vitamins A, K2, and D in a bioavailable form that the body can easily use to produce tissue, bone, and muscle.
In addition, saturated fats are anti-microbial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal and have been found to decrease infection rates by killing bacteria such as harmful candida yeast.
Finally, the omega-3 fats that are found in fish promote cellular health because fat composes the outside lipid layer of every cell in you body. Healthy cells let the body efficiently use energy by allowing the cells to bind with insulin easily so that glucose can be burned.
The bottom line: Don’t be conned by the non-fat label. Fat-free eating eliminates the best part about food—that it’s delicious and provides what your body needs for optimal health and leanness.