"Fat-free" bagels, yogurt and breakfast cereals are among a number of foods that have almost the same number of calories as the full-fat versions, a new study has found, suggesting that the low-fat diet fad that emerged in the 1980s is doing little to trim your waistline.

In fact, fat labelling could be doing more harm than good when it comes to weight management.  Instead, experts suggest steering clear of processed foods altogether and basing your diet on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.


 "When manufacturers remove the fat, they have to add something back. And often that can be sugar or starches," according to University of Toronto research assistant Alyssa Schermel, who led the study into fat claims.

"So even if the fat levels go down, the calories don't," Shermel told CTVNews.ca

The researchers found that most "fat-free" or "low-fat" food products sold in Canada have almost the same number of calories as their full-fat counterparts. These products included:

  • Bagels
  • Crackers
  • Chips
  • Yogurt
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk

For some foods that are already low in calories, such as bean dips and soups, the researchers found that the difference between low-fat and full-fat versions were sometimes as little as 17 calories.

Schermel said the idea of eating a low-fat diet to help with weight management dates back to the 1980s.

"Canada's Food Guide still has those eat low-fat messages," she said. "Because of that messaging, a lot of consumers believe that foods labeled as low-fat are beneficial for weight management." 

Schermel pointed to past studies which found that low-fat labelling can contribute to overeating because consumers often underestimate the number of calories in those products.

She recommends that those looking to drop some weight stop focusing on the fat messaging and instead look at the overall nutrition.

"Look at increasing fibre and lowering your intake of saturated fat, sodium and sugar," she said.

Fresh vegetables

Regina-based nutritionist Nicole Pulvermacher said a reasonable rule of thumb is that if a product is advertised as low-fat, "leave it on the shelf."

"With high-fat processed foods, low-fat versions of these unhealthy foods are not better for you," she said. "They're often just as high in calories with higher sugar levels to compensate for the lack of fat."