Beware of mind games when trying to reduce fat

November 18, 1997|By Lynn F. Little

Beware of mind games when trying to reduce fat

As a nation, we've gotten the message to eat less fat and cholesterol, but we are still heavier than ever.

Cholesterol intake is down, and fat consumption has dropped from a high of 40 percent of calories in the 1960s to about 34 percent of calories today. Despite this statistic, waistlines have continued to expand to the point where one in three Americans now weigh more than 30 percent above their ideal weight. Why do we continue to pile on the pounds?

Reducing the fat in our diets is important for overall health. However, it is just one part of the weight-management equation. Calories also count. Studies show that despite the fact that Americans continue to reduce the percentage of calories we consume as fat, we consume more calories than ever.

For years, dieters have been concerned about calories. Then, in the early '90s, scientists and food manufacturers learned how to fake the taste and mouth-feel of fat. They also learned about fat's preference for building fat cells rather than being metabolized as energy. As a result, fat became diet enemy No. 1. Americans seemed convinced that if it was fat-free, it also meant calorie-free. Today grocery store shelves bulge with reduced-fat and fat-free products.


It is time to do a reality check. The biggest problem with the "eat all you want" as long as it is "low-fat" theory appears to be just that, "eating all that you want!" While it's true that wherever you find fat you'll find plenty of calories, fat is not the only source of calories. Carbohydrates, protein and alcohol also provide calories.

Research has found that low-fat messages on foods appear to give people the license to eat more, regardless of the food's caloric content. When researchers gave normal-weight women a low-fat yogurt just before lunch, the women ate more lunch than when they gave the women the very same yogurt but labeled it "high fat."

Reducing the fat in your diet is an important component of any weight-management plan. It is important to read food labels because the terms used to decide low-fat products have a somewhat standardized meaning.

* Reduced-fat products must, by law, be at least 25 percent lower in fat content compared to their regular counterparts.

* Light products must be at least 50 percent lower in fat content than their regular counterparts.

* Low-fat products must contain no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.

* Fat-free products must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

In terms of fat and calories, reduced-fat products tend to have the most and fat-free the least calories and fat. Light and low-fat products tend to be somewhere in between.

When shopping for reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free, compare nutrient content, then compare this information with the full-fat product. Consider the differences in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories. In some cases, although fat will be substantially reduced, differences in calories may not be that great, due to a higher level of sugar in the reduced-fat product. In other cases, sodium may be higher in the low-fat product.

Besides fat, one must consider taste, cost and use in food preparation. Lower-fat cheeses, for example, have a tendency to be more rubbery and may not work as well in cooking as regular cheese.

It is important to read the Nutrition Facts label. reduced-fat and fat-free foods can help, if they're used properly. Don't use the fat-free or reduced-fat label as a license to eat as much as you want of a product. It may be just as high in total calories as its regular fat counterpart. Most important of all, we need to develop our own abilities to listen and respond to those internal cues on when we've had enough.

Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, for University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.

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