Which is Healthier: Full Fat, Low Fat, or Fat Free?

Which is Healthier: Full Fat, Low Fat, or Fat Free?

You have likely heard that we should eat less fat if we want to lose weight, improve our cholesterol levels or lower our risk for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. You may ALSO have heard that fat isn’t so bad for us after all, and perhaps eating low- or nonfat foods are worse choices than full-fat foods, especially dairy. Are you confused about what to eat? You’re not alone! In light of the whirlwind of marketing tactics, here’s some solid information from our resident dietitians to help you make a better choice:

Full fat foods are foods where the amount of fat has not been reduced or removed (e.g. regular sour cream.) Low-fat foods are foods where some of the fat has been removed (e.g. low-fat or light sour cream.) Nonfat foods are foods that have either all the naturally occurring fat removed or never had any fat in them to begin with (e.g. nonfat sour cream or celery.)

Logically, reducing the amount of calories we eat can help us lose weight.  Fat has more than twice as many calories as either protein or carbohydrates. So, if we eat low-fat or nonfat foods, we’ll be getting fewer calories. While this is true, it does not tell the whole story. Often we subconsciously may be replacing fat calories with other calories. That is, instead of eating 200 calories of regular sour cream, we may eat only 50 calories of sour cream… then eat an extra 150 calories worth of baked potato… or ice cream, or something else!  Additionally, some foods that have less fat have more of something else. To make foods taste good, there’s usually a combination of sugar, salt and fat. If one of these flavors is missing (i.e. fat), it’s commonly replaced with MORE of the other two (i.e. sugar or salt). While salt doesn’t have calories (won’t make us gain weight), we know the health risks of too much salt (e.g. high blood pressure, swelling.) And eating more sugar isn’t healthy, either, as it does have calories and can mess with blood glucose levels. The next time you go shopping, compare ingredient labels of regular, low-fat and nonfat sour cream; you will see what the fat has been replaced with. Is that any better for us?

Ultimately, it’s not about one single nutrient. It comes down to the same guidelines we’re all familiar with:

  1. Portion control – eat the right amounts, meaning not too little and not too much
  2. Know what’s you’re eating – keep in mind the more nutritious a food has, the better… even if it does contain some fat or sugar. An example is eating some avocado on toast instead of a “natural” toaster pastry
  3. Move more – get up and wiggle several times during the day


-Tracy Beckmann, RDN from Diabeties & Nutrition Education