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Do fat-free foods really make you fat?


How can a fat-free muffin have more calories than a regular muffin?
How can a fat-free muffin have more calories than a regular muffin?
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When snack-food manufacturers started selling fat-free products back in the '80s, they really hit the jackpot. Consumers, as the manufacturers knew well, were interested in avoiding fat because it clogs arteries, causes heart problems and — to state the obvious — makes you fat. So the nonfat versions of formerly taboo foods were a dieter's dream! Fat-free cookies, chips and dairy products flew off the shelves. But, as it turns out, not many people became miraculously svelte and healthy from going on fat-free diets. In fact, not eating fat seemed to cause more health issues than it solved.

There are, of course, plenty of naturally fat-free foods. Fruits and vegetables are obviously on the top of the list. The thing about fruits and veggies, though, is that they're usually low in calories and are packed with beneficial vitamins and minerals. That's not the case with fat-free processed food.

The problem with fat-free packaged food is that fat makes food taste good. With all the fat stripped out of them, brownies and other tasty treats tend to taste like cardboard. So, the manufacturers have to add in all kinds of stuff to restore the flavor – like sugar, salt and artificial flavors. And then there was the olestra fiasco of the '90s, in which the chemical was introduced to rid chips and other foods of fat and cholesterol. Turns out it also rendered the body unable to process certain nutrients, resulting in lovely side effects like loose bowels [source: Gentilviso]. Woops.

After all these additives are pumped in, fat-free foods can actually end up containing more calories and carbohydrates than their full-fat counterparts. Fruit can be high in calories and sugar, too, but you're getting fiber and other nutrients along with it. Fat-free food doesn't have too much else to recommend it.

We know now that all fat is not evil. The right kind (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) can lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and raise good cholesterol (HDL). Fat helps regulate hormones and your nervous system, aids vitamin absorption, encourages healthy blood vessels, enhances bone health and boosts your immune system. Fat-free salad dressings can actually hinder your ability to process all the good nutrients in that salad. And the dreaded trans fats could be lurking in low-fat processed food, so keep an eye out for that.

If you're ever tempted to buy a fat-free product in the grocery store, take a second to examine the nutritional information on the package. If it's loaded with sugar, salt or artificial additives — or has more calories than the full-fat version — put it back on the shelf. Most of the time, you'd be better off eating controlled full-fat portions rather than stuffing your face with fat-free junk. The full-fat version tastes better and will satisfy your craving sooner – as long as you don't eat the whole box!