• We may be doing our waistlines more harm than good by selecting low fat options (Blend Images)Source: Blend Images
Experts have long championed low-fat options for those looking to lose weight, but research suggests these foods could actually be contributing to obesity. So what should we be eating?
Charmaine Yabsley

26 Oct 2016 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2020 - 11:32 AM

If you've ever considered losing weight, cutting down the calories, or just eating a little healthier, you've probably reached for the low-fat version of your favourite food. However, you might want to rethink that choice.

A report published earlier this year in the UK by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration reported that "Eating a diet rich in full-fat dairy, such as cheese, milk, and yoghurt - can actually lower the chance of obesity."

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, states in the response to the report: "The current guidelines suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed - the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists."

Here in Australia, Katherine Baqleh, dietitian at Health Victory Nutrition Experts, mostly agrees with these findings. "The rates of overweight and obesity have continued to rise despite the increase in low fat foods available," she tells SBS.

"The current Australian Dietary Guidelines encourage a moderate intake of carbohydrates (preferably low GI) in combination with good quality proteins and plenty of colourful vegetables at every meal."

However, Baqleh believes that individual nutrients such as fats and carbohydrates are not to blame, but the sort of foods we're eating.

"In current times where convenience and speed are necessities in meal selection, portion sizes are increasing and the quality of the entire meal is deteriorating. Many convenience and pre-prepared meals are high in fat, high in refined or processed carbohydrates, and use poor-quality proteins such as deep-fried fish or fatty meats."

Have we been fed a lie?

Since the 1980s, when the first set of Australian Dietary Guidelines were published, we were told to "avoid eating too much fat". Around a decade later, the guidelines went even further, suggesting that we "eat a diet low in fat, and in particular, low in saturated fat". You couldn't move your shopping trolley down an aisle without tripping over a low-fat version of a product.

Yet, the latest statistics show that around 63 per cent of the adult Australian population is overweight or obese, and a worryingly one in four children fall into the same category. So despite our appetite for low-fat foods, we are still getting fatter.

It seems that we're missing the overall point about weight loss, and are lulling ourselves into a false sense of security by eating low-fat foods, sometimes without restraint.

"If a food label claims a product is low in fat, it must contain only three grams of fat or less per 100 grams of products," Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle, tells SBS. "If it says reduced fat, it must contain at least 25 per cent less fat kilojoules." Overall, it's the final number that counts.

"Some foods that carry the ‘low fat’ claim are still high in sugar and salt - what is known as the ‘sugar-fat seesaw’," explains Baqleh. "This is often the case for products such as fruit yoghurts, muesli bars and chocolate, but is not the case for skim and full fat milk. Also, many people see the ‘low fat’ claim as an opportunity to eat larger portions of the food, so the total number of calories consumed is essentially the same in the end."

A healthier future

Should you avoid the low-fat aisle next time you go shopping? According to Baqleh, low fat foods are not always the best option, but it depends on the person's needs.

"Some individuals have greater energy requirements than others, but in general, for someone on a calorie-restricted diet who is trying to lose weight, low fat options are suitable," she says.

"For diseases such as cardiovascular disease, drinking any dairy products, be it full-fat or low-fat, will lower the risk of complications. [The Australian Health Foundation recommends low-fat if you have a history of heart disease]."

The jury is still out on whether low-fat or full-fat dairy is better, in the light of recent studies, although the Australian Dietary Guidelines still recommend low-fat dairy. But when it comes to other food choices?

"It is important to consider what the fat has been replaced with when choosing the products," Baqleh says.

Fats to enjoy

Both Baqleh and Collins are keen to point out that not all fats are bad for you and not all fats make you fat. "Healthy fats found in foods such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, oily fish and avocado will help to accelerate weight loss," said Baqleh.

Before you reach for a low-fat packaged food, consider Nature's alternative instead. "If you're putting low-fat foods into your shopping trolley, it's wise to stick to the ones that would have been around in your grandparent's day," said Collins.

"This means eating more vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy products, plus whole grains, fish or vegetarian sources of protein such as baked beans. It means avoiding packaged and highly-processed low-fat foods."

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