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Fat-free vs. Low-calorie: Which Way Is Best?

by Ysabel J. Doran

Before you throw that jar of fat-free mayo or those fat-free muffins in your shopping cart, thinking they'll help you lose weight, consider this -- fat does not make you fat.

It sounds like a paradox, but in fact, it makes perfect sense. Fat on your body does not come from the fat that you eat. It comes from calories you consume in excess of what you use up with activity.

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All food that you eat is digested and turned in to basic units of energy called glucose. Glucose energy translates into calories. And unused calories are stored as body fat. It doesn't matter what type of food the calories come from, they all are either used or stored as fat.

Fat has a fattening reputation because, of all the food types, it is the densest source of food energy. So just a little bit of fat packs a big calorie punch. And since fat also tastes good, it's easy to overload your diet with extra fat calories. The consequence could be weight gain, or maybe just not the weight loss you were expecting. In this way, fat in your diet does affect fat on your body.


The solution to the problem of too much dietary fat seems simple -- eat fat-free foods. But in practice, if you rely on "fat-free" products as a way to control your weight, you may not get the figure- trimming results you are expecting. The problem is that cutting fat out of your diet does not necessarily mean you're cutting calories.

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Read the labels on products that are labeled "fat free." A lot of food manufacturers will compensate for the flavor that's lost when fat is removed from food by adding salt and sugar in various forms. Sugar calories add up almost as quickly as fat calories. And sugar calories are digested rapidly, meaning the energy you get from sugar must be used immediately or it goes straight onto your body as, you guessed it, fat.

Another thing to consider is that fat-free products don't necessarily include any more nutritional value than their fatty counterparts. So, you're still consuming empty calories. And empty calories should have only a very small place in a sensible weight-loss diet.

Still, with more than two thirds of the population struggling with excess weight, it's natural to want to shun dietary fat. But the goal of a totally fat-free diet is not only impossible to attain, it's unwise. Doctors seldom recommend cutting daily fat consumption below 20%. This is partly because certain nutrients like vitamins A, E and K come only from dietary fat sources, and also because some dietary fat is vital for essential body functions.


Fat in your diet also has an important effect on your energy level when you're trying to lose weight. The complex structure of fat molecules that make them such a dense source of energy, also makes them harder to digest.

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The longer your body takes to digest its food, the longer it has to use that food energy before it is stored as body fat. So, fat is a long lasting energy source. Dietary fat does something else for you too. It helps you feel full longer, so you won't be tempted to snack as much.

Of course, when you need to cut excess fat from your diet, fat free products can be a good alternative to high fat snacks. The key to using fat free products smartly is to remember that for weight loss, ultimately, it's the calorie count that makes the difference.