Low-Fat Foods: 5 Things You Need to Know

Jenna Birch
by Jenna Birch
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Low-Fat Foods: 5 Things You Need to Know

You’ve seen “low-fat” labels all over everything from dairy products to snack foods, but what do they mean? And are they really considered “healthy” anymore?

Stores are meant to sell you goods, and the best way to do that is to market, market, market. Tacking “low” onto pretty much anything makes an item seem more appealing, no matter what follows—low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-calorie, etc. And since we associate fat with weight, anything that’s low-fat sounds like a winner to us. But we need to put these brain associations into perspective. Here are 5 things to know about low-fat foods.

1. There’s good fat, and there’s bad fat Let’s talk fat basics—because you do need fat in your diet. The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in oils, nuts, seeds and fatty fish are the gold standard. “These heart-healthy fats and have been shown to improve cholesterol levels, and decrease risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says registered dietitian Barbara Linhardt, M.S., R.D.

Then, there’s saturated fat and trans fat, found in animal fats and processed foods, which are the basically the enemy. “We now know that trans fat intake is associated with high cholesterol and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” Linhardt says. “As a result, many states have banned adding trans fats to food items and the FDA is moving to ban trans fats from our grocery stores and restaurants entirely.”

The takeaway: unsaturated fats are good, saturated and trans fats are not.

2. Yes, fat can be linked to weight gain If you’re completely ignoring the pros about fats, it’s probably because you associate fat intake with weight gain. There’s a good reason for that: “Compared to carbohydrates and protein, which clock in at 4 calories per gram, fat is high in calories at 9 calories per gram,” Linhardt says. “If we eat a lot of high fat items, we are going to take in a lot of calories, which will lead to excess weight gain.”

The takeaway: be aware of fatty foods. You can’t just sit down and pop almonds into your mouth all night long, even though they contain good fat and are technically good for you.

3. If the label says “low-fat,” it’s probably processed There are tons of good-for-you low-fat foods, including fruits, veggies and whole grains—all of which are all naturally low in fat and calories, and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. “These are all great things to keep our immune system, digestive system, and entire body going strong,” says Linhardt. That said, any food that has a label touting “low-fat,” more often than not, is going to be a processed food.

“When processed foods are low-fat, they are often high in sodium or sugar,” Linhardt says. “High-sodium diets can increase your risk of high blood pressure, and too much sugar can lead to weight gain and other health problems, like diabetes.” So that bag of low-fat chips? Not exactly a health food.

The takeaway: A low-fat food that comes in a box, can, or bottle is a red flag. Always read the nutrition label to avoid digging into high-sodium, high-sugar foods.

4. You need to watch serving sizes You might want to beware of such “healthy” low-fat foods for another reason, too. There’s a little psychological phenomenon known as the SnackWells effect, which is the idea that you might go overboard when a food item is seemingly better for you. An example would be noshing on, say, four low-cal, low-fat SnackWells cookies instead of just one homemade chocolate chunk. Because… it’s “healthy.” (Not so much.)

The takeaway: If a box of low-fat crackers has a serving size of 10, and you think you could easily munch on 30 in one sitting, it’s best to stop before you start.

5. It’s best to stick with naturally, low-fat foods Above all else: opt for whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains over processed foods (on which you’ll find those “low-fat” labels). While they may be OK in moderation, eating all low-fat canned, bottled, and boxed products does not a healthy diet make. “Foods that are rich in protein and fiber are great at helping stay on track with your daily calorie goals, while keeping you feeling satiated and regular,” says Linhardt. “They may not come with labels, but when you pick up an avocado or sweet potato, you’re making a positive choice. Yes, avocados are high in fat and sweet potatoes are high in carbs, but the amazing thing is they are both healthy.”

The takeaway: With whole foods, you don’t have to worry about reading a label to know you’ve made a healthy choice.

How do you feel about low-fat foods? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author

Jenna Birch
Jenna Birch

Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer. She has written for many web and print publications, including Marie Claire, Runner’s World, mom.me and WomansDay.com. As a nutrition and fitness junkie, she’s a lifelong athlete, major college sports fan and developing yogi—but still can’t resist the allure of an occasional chocolate lava cake. (Everything in moderation, right?) For more, visit her at jennabirch.com or follow her on Twitter.  


15 responses to “Low-Fat Foods: 5 Things You Need to Know”

  1. Avatar kev says:

    So Jenna doesn’t know what processed means nor is up to date about research on fats (CLA and TVA are evil trans fats) and whole foods = healthy lol

  2. Avatar Susan says:

    Thank you for sharing this very useful information, Jenna.

    Instead of counting calories perhaps people should be counting chemicals in their processed ‘low-fat’ foods.

    I will be passing this article on to many friends and family members.

    Thanks again,


  3. Avatar Linda says:

    I have given up on ALL Fat Free, Low Fat, Sugar Free processed foods. To make the FF and LF taste decent, they have to add so much sodium & sugar and other things I can’t pronounce. The same with the SF stuff. I am diabetic and found I can keep my blood sugar levels better with “real” food and just watch the portions. Common sense rules.

  4. Avatar karla says:

    Ummmmmm what about plant bases saturated fats?…….safflower (cla) and coconut. …..I think there needs to be more about those fats in this article.

  5. Avatar Kim Shelton says:

    AHA! Bashing my saviour….the saturated fat. So sad that you follow misinterpreted research. I live on low carb high fat diet and finally I am healthy. No longer threatened by diabetes, my ldl lowered and my hdl increased. Real butter and coconut oil are my best friends and helped me lose over 20% of my body weight. I will never go back to those other oils you say are better.

    • Avatar Erika says:

      Real butter is better for ya than margarine, from what I have read and understood and besides, it tastes better >.<

    • Avatar JofJLTNCB6 says:

      Indeed. Lumping saturated fat and transfat into the same bucket. Sad to see that we’re still trying to pass off decades old myths as current science.

  6. Avatar Jannerbird says:

    Think it’s a bit erroneous to suggest you don’t have to worry if you’re picking avocados & sweet potatoes… I overate perfectly well eating clean food. You can have too much of a good thing too. You still need to be careful about the AMOUNT of foods you take in.

  7. Avatar Lea says:

    Saturated fat and Trans Fat should not be linked as equally bad, because there is good evidence for one (trans) being terrible for you. Saturated fat not so much. That’s what our grandparents and great grandparents ate and taht is what we should eat.

  8. Avatar Redro says:

    This flies in the face of popular thinking at the moment (a la Tim Noakes and the banting mob), that says cholesterol in the die has NO influence on cholesterol in the body – and that animal fats, butter, coconut oil and cream are good for you and seed oils are bad for you. Watch Cereal Killers. No wonder the average punter is totally confused about what to eat. All calories are not the same. Since I have been on a LCHF diet my gout has totally disappeared, I have lost 5 kgs, I am seldom hungry, I have stopped snacking and I have never felt better, or had more energy.

  9. Avatar Cia Rising says:

    I gotta say that I probably won’t give up my butter or my meat eating ways. I allow for the fats in my diet. I do not eat processed foods. They usually don’t taste good.

  10. Avatar Adam Hagen says:

    You cannot put Trans fats and Saturated fats in the same category… that’s just ignorant…

  11. Avatar Akimajuktuq says:

    It breaks my heart when I still see “animal fats/saturated fats are the enemy”. This couldn’t be more wrong and there is no shortage of evidence that disproves it, over and over and over. Natural saturated fats ARE THE HEALTHY FATS and I’m living proof as are all of our human ancestors for thousands of years.

  12. Avatar brista says:

    Points 1 and 2 would benefit from the latest research instead of still buying into the debunked junk science that supports low-fat high-carb diets (an experiment the American people have been doing since the 50s…strange we all got fatter and sicker on the low-fat high-carb diet…!)

    Bad fat = trans fat and highly processed seed/vegetable oils. Good fats = natural saturated fats (including animal!!) and unsaturated fats from minimally processed sources (like olive oil).

    Fat may have more calories per g than carbs but because it’s satiating and filling, you need less of it. I can have 2 eggs (yolk & white!) cooked in a tablespoon of real butter for 7:00 AM breakfast and be satisfied until 12:30/1:00 PM. Or I can buy into the low-fat high-carb BS, eat a serving of “heart healthy” cereal with skim milk and a piece of fruit…and be hungry again an hour later.


    Easy choice there. Especially since my high-fat low-carb real food diet has led to losing 30 lbs of excess weight without feeling starved.

  13. Avatar Guest says:

    Terrible article and advice on saturated fat. When will so called dietitians learn.

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