Low Fat and Fat Free Foods

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F or years, people have debated the efficacy of diets that promise to help one lose weight and keep it off. The subjects of these debates include low-carbohydrate, no-carbohydrate, low-fat, fat-free, and high-fiber diets, among others. As dieting has become an integral part of American culture, specific foods and diets have been created and marketed to appeal to the desires of the public. In recent years, supermarkets have continuously been filled with new food products created and labeled as "low-fat," or "fat-free," making them more alluring to those who are seeking weight loss or a healthy lifestyle. Fad diets have proliferated in the U.S.A. since the nineteenth century; however, they just as often fall out of favor. Within the span of only a year or two, a diet can go from being endorsed by nutritional sponsors to being shunned. In comparison to extreme diets, such as the Atkins Diet, which were rejected by nutritionists soon after they become popular, a diet low in fat has been popular for decades.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in order for a food to be considered fat-free, it must have less than 0.5 grams per reference amount and per labeled serving, (for meals less than 0.5 grams per labeled serving). A low-fat food has 3 grams or less per reference amount (and per 50 grams if reference amount is small and for meals, less than 3 grams per serving). During the past twenty years, however, the amount and type of dietary fat that one should consume in order to maintain a healthy diet has become the source of great controversy. While fat is often portrayed as a dietary scoundrel, it ironically has many health benefits. According to the Nutrition and Health Encyclopedia, fats should take up 30 percent of caloric intake, functioning to supply the majority of food energy (Tver and Russel 1989: 375). While the consumption of fat is essential for one to live and maintain a healthy diet and body, the right types of fats must be consumed. Modern societies generally eat a diet high in saturated fat, sugar, refined foods, and low in fiber—often termed the "Western Diet." Many believe that this diet is the reason for the prevalence of obesity as well as high levels of chronic and degenerative diseases (Popkin 1993: 138). Ironically, as the prevalence of obesity in America and most Western cultures is climbing by the year, more low-fat and fat-free foods are appearing and being endorsed on the market.

There may, however, be a cause-and-effect relationship between the popularity of low-fat and fat-free foods and the rising levels of obesity. Nutritionist Barry M. Popkin has observed that the rise in diseases related to high fat intake and obesity has caused a health-conscious behavioral change. During the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. population started increasingly to eat low-fat foods and reject high-fat foods (Popkin 1993: 145). As the variety of low-fat and fat-free foods continues to increase, it becomes easier to attain and eat these types of foods.

In the U.S.A., dietary patterns often differ by income. People who earn higher incomes and are generally more educated are more likely to follow a low-fat diet than those who earn low incomes. Fat and sugar provide dietary energy at a very low cost and are, therefore, all the more appealing to low-income people. Low-fat products are also more expensive in comparison to similar foods with higher fat contents. For example, at the online grocery store, www.netgrocer.com, Baked Lays, which are low-fat, cost 61 cents per ounce, while Regular Lays, which are not low-fat, cost 35 cents per ounce.

Food consumption is very much based on price, explaining the recent studies, which have applied economic theories to changing dietary behavior. For example, two community-based intervention studies completed by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health revealed that price reductions are an effective strategy to increase the purchase of more healthful foods in community-based settings, such as work sites and schools

(French 2003: 841S). In twelve Minnesota work sites and twelve secondary schools, when the prices of low-fat foods in vending machines were reduced by 10, 25, and 50 percent, the percentage of sales of the low-fat foods increased by 9, 39, and 93 percent respectively (French 2003: 842S). Based on this study, which demonstrates the importance of price in relation to food consumption, the high acquisition of fast food and "supersize portions" makes sense because they are large quantity/low price foods.

While a portion of the population in recent years has been consuming a lower-fat diet, consisting of many low-fat and fat-free foods, a great number of people in the Western world have been consuming high-fat foods. This has resulted in the rise of obesity rates and high health risks for more and more people. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of many health conditions, including hypertension, dyslipidemia, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, and specific cancers (Centers for Disease Control). Due to rising obesity rates and obesity-related health problems, the promotion of low-fat and fat-free foods and healthy fats (i.e., Omega 3 Fatty Acids) have become ever more important. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that total fat intake should not exceed more than 30 percent of total caloric intake and that saturated fat should account for no more than i0 percent of daily caloric intake. Increased consumption of low-fat and fat-free foods aids in weight loss and benefits an individual's health, possibly preventing certain diseases as well as lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. Considering that i gram of fat has 9 calories in it, while i gram of protein or carbohydrate contains only 4 calories, it is clear why diets lower in fat often lead to weight loss.

However, while it would make sense for people who consume many low-fat and fat-free foods to lose weight, this is not always the case. For some people, consuming a low-fat diet does lead to a lower calorie diet and weight loss, but for others, low-fat diets do not correlate with lower-calorie diet. Often, when a food is labeled low-fat or fat-free, people eat more in quantity, canceling out the weight-loss effect of the food. This particular phenomenon would explain the increasing rates of obesity as more low-fat and fat-free foods are available, and more people consume a smaller percentage of calories from total fat (Kennedy et al. 1999: 207).

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture performed a study, which focused on the patterns of dietary fat intake of the U.S. population. The study concluded that while the general fat and saturated-fat intakes as a percentage of total calories have been declining over the past thirty years, a majority of individuals do not consume a diet which meets the levels of fat and saturated fat recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Kennedy et al. 1999, 211). In essence, individuals are generally consuming more calories while simultaneously reducing fat intake as a percentage of total calories.

Often people who eat low-fat and fat-free foods, reducing their overall fat intake, also suffer from an energy loss and, therefore, start to eat higher-fat foods. The energy loss is usually a result of eating the wrong foods. In order to keep energy levels high on a low-fat diet, it is important to consume foods which are low in fat but also nutrient-dense. For example, an individual could switch from a high-fat snack to a piece of fruit or from full-fat cottage cheese to low-fat cottage cheese. These tradeoffs allow the dieter to consume needed nutrients while lowering the fat and calorie content of their food.

The obesity epidemic has become a global concern. In recent years, society has facilitated an environment where palatability rather than health is most salient, which explains the rise in obesity (Roefs et al. 2005: 733). As the importance of a healthy diet is continually and publicly stressed, the general population, be it a result of taste, cost, lack of education, or apathy, continues to consume a diet too high in fat. While fat is essential to living, consuming the right amount and types of fat are necessary to maintain a healthy diet. Though low-fat and fat-free foods will aid weight loss, it is also important keep caloric intake equal to caloric expenditure and lead an active lifestyle.

SLG/Laura Goldstein

See also Atkins; Obesity Epidemic; Ornish; Socioeconomic Status

References and Further Reading

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Overweight and Obesity: Home," Department of Health and Human Services, available online at <http:// www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity> (accessed March 12, 2007). Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (2004)


"Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims," U.S. Food and Drug Administration food labeling guide, available online at <http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ flg-6a.html> (accessed March 12, 2007).

French, Simone A. (2003) "Symposium: Sugar and Fat— from Genes to Culture-Pricing Effects on Food Choices," American Society for Nutritional Sciences (March): 841S-843S.

Kennedy, Eileen T., Bowman, Shanthy A., and Powell, Renee (1999) "Dietary-Fat Intake in the U.S. Population," Journal of the American College of Nutrition 18 (3): 207-12.

Popkin, Barry M. (1993) "Nutritional Patterns and Transitions," Population and Development Review 19 (1): 138-54.

Roefs, A., Quaedackers, L., Werrij, M.Q., Wolters, G., Havermans, R., Nederkoorn, C., Breukelen, G. van, and Jansen, A. (2005) "The Environment Influences Whether High-Fat Foods Are Associated with Palatable or with Unhealthy," Behavior Research and Therapy 44 (5): 715-34.

Tver, David F. and Russel, Percy (eds) (1989) The Nutrition and Health Encyclopedia, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

U.S. Department of Agriculture "Choose a Diet Low in Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol," the United States Department of Agriculture, available online at <http:// www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga95/lowfat.htm> (accessed March 12, 2007).

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