Walk down any supermarket aisle and it seems that most of our favourite foods also come in a 'reduced' or 'low' fat version. If you're trying to lose weight and find ways to cut calories out of your diet, it seems the natural way to go.
After all fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient, with 9 kcals per gram compared to 4 kcals for carbs and protein, so eating less fat has the biggest effect on saving calories. But while 'low fat' products may seem the guilt-free way to enjoy foods we generally treat as off-limits when trying to lose weight, are they always the better choice? Nutracheck nutritionist, Emma Brown, takes a closer look.
"There's no denying it – fat tastes good! It carries flavour in our food and is important for texture. We all need some fat in our diet, and nutritionally, fats do much more than simply supplying calories. Certain fats, like those found in nuts, seeds and oily fish, provide essential fatty acids which are important for maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and for the correct functioning of our nervous system. The fat in our diet also helps us to absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K. So fat – the healthy type – is definitely good for us.
"Always choosing low fat foods, or following a very low-fat diet will undoubtedly cut calories from your diet. However the downside is that it makes it more likely for you to be low in the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), which can impact your immunity and limit the body's ability to heal itself. That's not to say you should not eat low fat options, but it's better to balance this and include some healthier fats in your diet – from oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil (it's obviously important to measure these foods and track the calories if your goal is to lose weight).
"Low fat foods can also have a higher sugar content as the fat is replaced with sugar for taste. This is a double-whammy – you may not be saving as many calories as you think, and whilst you may be cutting fat out of your diet, you could be increasing the amount of added sugars you're eating. And of course there's taste – there is often a noticeable difference.
"As well as nutritional pros and cons, there is also the enjoyment factor. We carried out a survey with our members and asked for their views on eating high calorie foods such as cheese, chocolate, ice cream, crisps and desserts. 54% said they preferred to enjoy the 'real thing' and just have a little taster. 26% said they wanted to get the most from their calories and so opted for a lower fat alternative. And 20% said they avoid completely because if they start, they won't stop! (The Pringles ad slogan is oh so true, once you pop you really can't stop.)
"We decided to carry out a blind taste test. Not highly scientific, just one popular product – houmous! Regular houmous and the reduced fat version look the same – which would win out?
Let's compare the nutritional profile: there's 29.4g fat (of which 3.3g are saturates) in the regular houmous, compared to 19.0g of fat (of which 2.7g are saturates) in the reduced fat alternative; that's 35% lower in fat overall, a significant reduction.
The ingredients in the two products are the same – but the proportions are different – and there's more water in the reduced fat version. Not surprisingly the calorie content of the regular houmous is higher at 338 kcals per 100g vs 253 kcals for the reduced fat version – that's a calorie saving of 32%.
The result? The full fat Marks & Spencer Houmous with Extra Virgin Olive Oil won hands down! Compliments included: 'nicer texture', 'more body', 'intense in flavour', 'easier to distinguish the chickpeas' and 'better aftertaste'.
Conclusion: It comes down to balance and personal preference. I have discussed the nutritional trade off vs calorie savings. Including some low or reduced fat products in your diet is fine – just also ensure you include foods with good healthy fats in your diet too.
However there is also personal behaviour to factor in – you know yourself! If having a 'little of what you fancy' is the slippery slope to over-indulging, then a 'low' or 'reduced' fat version may be a safer option. However if taste is essential to your enjoyment, then a small (weighed out) portion of the real thing is just fine! Remember to track it in your diary if your goal is to lose weight.
Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.