Is full-fat food better for you than low-fat or fat-free food?

a bowl of full fat yogurt with nuts and berries

Low-fat vs. full-fat foods. Which is healthier?

Is low-fat yogurt better for you than regular yogurt? What about “light” versus regular salad dressing? Or skim milk compared to nut-based versions?

The answers might surprise you.

Dietitians frequently debate whether low-fat foods are better for you than full-fat foods. The challenge is, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. There are so many factors at play, including a person’s genetics, health issues, taste preferences, ability to stick with a diet and even the food itself.

This explains why there’s a lot of confusion for consumers.

I’m not a fan of low-fat foods, because of the answer to this question: What are you substituting in place of fat? You’re often increasing your carbs, which probably isn’t beneficial. The biggest things I focus on are calories, carbohydrates and protein. You want your carbs to come from high-fiber foods as much as possible. By eating low-fat products, you can miss out on fiber, protein, or amino acids. You need to maintain a balance.

One thing all dietitians agree on is that healthy fats — such as avocados, nuts and seeds, olive oil and salmon — are ideal. They’re high in healthy fats and lower in saturated fats, which may be less beneficial to your health.

What’s wrong with low-fat food products?

Low-fat typically means high carbohydrates. Think of those 100-calorie, low-fat bars that came out in the 1990s as weight-loss products. They were 100% carbohydrates. They were basically like a cookie. Eating low-fat, high-carb foods can increase your triglycerides, which is no better than eating a high-fat diet. Whether you choose a low-fat, high-fat, vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s important to get enough protein. Without enough protein, you may feel hungry more frequently. That can be counterproductive for weight loss if it results in increased snacking.

Will you feel more full if you eat full-fat foods?

Yes. I advocate that you can eat full-fat salad dressing and a little bit of cheese with a meal, all in moderation, or have avocados or nut butters. They will make you feel more full. That’s one of the reasons I recommend a higher-protein, higher-fat diet —you feel more full after you eat. Fat, protein and fiber take longer to digest, which means they leave you feeling full for longer periods between meals. A low-fat meal of skinless chicken breast and vegetables? You may find yourself hungry sooner than you would after a meal that provides some healthy fat in addition to your lean protein and fiber-filled veggies.

Can you lose weight if you’re eating high-fat foods?

A low-fat diet used to be recommended for weight loss, however those claims are not supported as much anymore. What we’ve seen in the research is that a high-fat diet can help people feel less hungry, and may be beneficial for heart health. With a high-fat, low-carb diet, you normally see a decrease in triglycerides, lower blood pressure and weight loss – all linked to better heart health. The LDL (bad cholesterol) might increase a little bit, but it’s usually not significant. For weight loss, it comes down to calorie intake. Whether you’re following a low-fat or a high-fat diet, if you’re in calorie excess, it’s still going to contribute to weight gain. Try to choose a diet rich in plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes), fiber-rich carbohydrates, healthy fats and lean proteins to provide a balanced diet that promotes weight loss.

Is full-fat dairy better for you than low-fat dairy?

Full-fat vs. low-fat yogurt

Regular yogurt doesn’t have much protein and it’s typically loaded with sugar. Greek yogurt is a better option, as it is higher in protein, but be careful because it can also be loaded with sugar. So you have to read the labels.

Full-fat vs. low-fat milk

Skim and low-fat milk may not be as filling as a cup of whole milk. It doesn’t make a substantial difference in carbs and protein, it just lowers the calorie content. I recommend brands of milk that are higher in protein but lower in carbs, like ultra-filtered milk. Plant-based milks have fewer calories and less fat, but they often are low in protein, so dairy-based milk may be a better option for certain meals that lack protein, such as cereal or smoothies. Kefir is also a really good option. The fermented milk drink contains probiotics, which have been found to promote healthy gut bacteria, which plays a role in weight loss.

What about ice cream?

The lower-fat version of ice cream is usually higher in carbohydrates and sugar. So, I say go with the full-fat version, just watch your portion size. If eating two cups of light ice cream is the same amount of calories as one cup of regular ice cream, I’d rather you have one cup of regular ice cream, as it most likely contains less carbohydrates and sugar.

What about salad dressing?

Avoid the low-fat versions of salad dressings. These are often higher in added sugars. To give it the same mouthfeel and texture, they add carbohydrates. If your salad is primarily vegetables, stick with a high-fat, regular dressing, and it’ll help keep you full after the meal. If your salad has other fats like nuts, seeds, cheese or avocado, choosing a lower calorie dressing can help keep the calories of the meal balanced.

Try and stick to olive-oil based dressings. I recommend making your own salad dressings. It’s super easy to do: one part olive oil, two parts vinegar and a squirt of mustard. While a tablespoon of olive oil still provides a lot of calories, an olive oil-based dressing has a better ratio of unsaturated (healthy) versus saturated (unhealthy) fat in comparison to, say, ranch dressing.

What about nuts?

Nuts are a great source of healthy fats, but you have to watch the serving size. I have patients who will say to me, “I ate a cup of nuts as a snack!” But that’s 800 calories! And if they were honey roasted, that meant sugar was added. Go the route of plain or dry-roasted nuts that aren’t sweet-seasoned. For a serving of nuts, I say ¼- to ½-cup a day, max, if you’re trying to lose weight.

What about eggs?

Eat a full egg and not just egg whites. The yolk has cholesterol and fat, but the yolk also provides all the vitamins and minerals, and it has some protein in it, too. A full egg is 80 calories and an egg white is only 18, but a full egg is more filling.

Eggs have a ton of benefits. They’re high in vitamin B and choline, which are great for brain health. There’s a lot of research that shows having eggs for breakfast makes you feel more full than having cereal. However, if you are looking for ways to add more protein to a meal, adding egg whites is a good idea.

What about 100-calorie snack packages?

Look at the nutrition information. Most 100-calorie packs are primarily carbs with no nutritional value. I’d rather you have 100 calories of almonds than 100 calories of pretzels. Or a 100-calorie piece of dark chocolate rather than 100-calorie cookie packet. The dark chocolate provides antioxidants, which are great for your health. The calories might be identical, but if it’s just a refined, processed product, I’d rather you do something that’s a full-fat version that has more nutrition.

What about pasta?

People are like, “Oh, this pasta only has 30 carbs!” Yeah, but that is 30 grams of pure carbohydrate if it only contains 1 gram of fiber. Bean-based pastas are a better alternative because they’re higher in fiber and protein. So, at least they are fiber-filled carbs, which provide more nutritional value than pasta from refined flour.

UChicago Medicine dietitians discuss weight loss and healthy eating

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