Many people associate the term “low fat” with health or healthy foods.

Some nutritious foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are naturally low in fat.

However, processed low fat foods often contain a lot of added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

Generally, consuming the naturally occurring fat in whole foods like meats, nuts, seeds, and dairy products in moderation isn’t harmful to your health, and there’s no need to remove it from your diet.

Here are 12 low fat foods that are not as healthy as their full fat counterparts.

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1. Low fat sweetened breakfast cereals

In some ways, breakfast cereals appear to be a healthy way to start your day. For example, they’re low in fat and fortified with vitamins and minerals. Their packaging also tends to list health claims, such as “contains whole grains.”

However, many cereals are loaded with added sugar. In the ingredients section, sugar is usually the second or third item listed, meaning it’s present in large amounts.

What’s more, it’s not just white table sugar that you should pay attention to. White sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey all contain fructose.

Excess amounts of fructose have been linked to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems (1).

Additionally, the seemingly healthiest low fat cereals may contain some of the highest amounts of these unhealthy ingredients.

For example, 1 cup (98 grams) of low fat granola contains 22 grams (about 5 teaspoons) of sugar (2).

2. Low fat flavored coffee drinks

Coffee, when consumed in moderation, has health benefits. It contains antioxidants that protect heart health, and drinking it is associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes (3).

Coffee also contains caffeine, which can improve your mental and physical performance while increasing your metabolic rate (4).

On the other hand, the high sugar content of some flavored low fat coffee drinks can negatively affect your health.

For example, a medium (496-gram) nonfat mocha drink has only one-half gram of fat but a whopping 47 grams of sugar. That’s 73% of its total calories (5).

Not only does this beverage provide a hefty serving of fructose, but it’s in liquid form, which seems to be especially harmful to health (6).

Liquid calories aren’t as satisfying as calories from solid food. They promote a higher daily calorie intake that may lead to weight gain (7).

3. Low fat flavored yogurt

Yogurt has a long-standing reputation as a healthy food. Studies show that plain yogurt may aid weight loss and improve body composition, in part by increasing levels of the fullness hormones GLP-1 and PYY. It’s also full of healthy probiotic bacteria (8, 9).

However, low fat, sugar-sweetened yogurt contains too much sugar to qualify as a nutritious choice.

For example, 1 cup (245 grams) of fruit-flavored, nonfat yogurt contains 31 grams of sugar — about as much as a cup (190 grams) of banana pudding (10, 11).

To enjoy the benefits that yogurt provides, choose one with the least amount of added sugar, and if you choose to have plain yogurt, spruce it up by adding fruit. You can also add a little honey or maple syrup for sweetness.

4. Low fat salad dressing

Salad dressing enhances the flavor of raw vegetables and may improve a salad’s nutritional value.

Traditional salad dressings are high in fat, which helps your body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K (12).

In addition, fat helps you absorb antioxidants from foods such as leafy greens, carrots, and tomatoes (13).

In contrast, low fat and fat-free salad dressings don’t contribute any health benefits to your meal. Most of them also contain sugar and preservatives.

While it’s no surprise that sweet dressings such as honey mustard and Thousand Island are high in sugar, many others are also loaded with sugar and additives to replicate the texture provided by oil. This includes fat-free Italian dressing (14).

The healthiest salad dressings are those that are made without sugar and contain natural fats like olive oil, which benefits heart health (15).

You can try regular balsamic vinegar, which is naturally tasty. Alternatively, try making a simple salad dressing, such as one of these.

5. Reduced fat peanut butter

Peanut butter is a delicious and popular food. Studies suggest that peanuts and peanut butter may have benefits for appetite control, body weight, blood sugar, and heart health (16, 17, 18).

It’s high in monounsaturated fats, including oleic acid, which may be responsible for many of its benefits.

However, note that natural peanut butter contains only peanuts and perhaps salt. By contrast, reduced fat peanut butter may contain sugar, corn syrup, and other additives to make it more appetizing and smooth.

What’s more, although the total fat is reduced, some of the healthy monounsaturated fats are replaced by processed vegetable oil.

The calorie content of natural peanut butter and reduced fat peanut butter is the same — about 190–200 calories in 2 tablespoons (32 grams). However, natural peanut butter is a better choice because it’s only minimally processed (19, 20).

6. Low fat muffins

Low fat muffins may seem like a healthier option than other baked goods, but they’re still comparable to their high fat counterparts.

A small, 70-gram, low fat blueberry muffin contains 19 grams of sugar. This is 43% of its calorie content (21).

However, this is a much smaller muffin than you’d find in a coffee shop or convenience store.

Muffins — both those that are low and high in fat — can be loaded with added sugar and contain very little fiber. However, there are creative ways to make them more nutritious.

7. Low fat frozen yogurt

Low fat or nonfat frozen yogurt is considered a healthier choice than ice cream because it’s much lower in fat.

However, it can contain just as much sugar as ice cream, if not more.

A 100-gram serving of nonfat frozen yogurt contains 21 grams of sugar, which is the same amount found in 100 grams of vanilla ice cream (22, 23).

You should have frozen yogurt as a treat instead of ice cream if you like the taste better. Besides being lower in fat, its nutritional profile can be similar to that of regular ice cream.

8. Low fat cookies

Low fat cookies aren’t necessarily healthier than other cookies.

When the low fat trend was at its peak in the 1990s, many low fat cookies filled grocery store shelves.

Like most low fat foods, the sugar content of these cookies is high. A fat-free fig bar cookie has 9 grams of sugar, which is 55% of its total calorie content (24).

In addition, low fat cookies are typically made with refined flour, which acts similarly to sugar in regards to blood sugar levels and overall health (25).

9. Low fat cereal bars

Low fat cereal bars are marketed as a healthy on-the-go snack for busy people or a quick breakfast for kids.

Yet, they’re loaded with sugar and contain very little protein or fiber, which promote fullness (26).

In fact, research shows that consuming high protein snacks can help prevent overeating (27).

One popular low fat, fruit-flavored cereal bar contains 11 grams of sugar but only 1 gram of fiber and 2 grams of protein. So, it’s best to have them in moderation (28).

If pressed for time in the morning, a slice of wheat toast with nut butter and a banana would be a more nutritious option.

10. Low fat spreads

Low fat spreads like margarine aren’t nutrient dense.

While they have less fat than original spreads such as butter, they’re made with highly processed vegetable oils that can be harmful to health and pro-inflammatory (29, 30).

What’s more, many of these spreads contain highly processed additives to improve the texture and flavor.

It’s actually much healthier to use modest amounts of butter or healthy mayo rather than processed low fat spreads.

While skim milk has long been touted as the healthiest type of milk, research suggests that’s not the case.

Skim and reduced fat milks must go through extra processing to remove the milk fat, resulting in a product that contains slightly more milk sugar by weight than an equal serving of whole milk (31, 32).

Furthermore, numerous studies suggest that skim milk provides no benefit over whole milk for heart health or weight management — despite being lower in calories and fat. In fact, full fat dairy may offer some protective benefits that reduced fat or fat-free dairy doesn’t (33).

Nevertheless, research on the effects of replacing full fat milk and with skim milk is inconsistent (34).

Reduced fat cheeses are typically made by starting with reduced fat milks. However, these cheeses leave a lot to be desired in terms of texture, creaminess, moisture, and how well they melt (35).

For this reason, many reduced fat cheeses contain added stabilizers or processed fat replacements to help mimic the stretchiness and melt factor of regular cheese (35).

While reduced fat cheese may be lower in fat, this doesn’t necessarily make it a healthier choice, as it’s more highly processed than full fat cheese.

Low fat foods may seem healthy, but they’re often loaded with added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. These can lead to excessive hunger, weight gain, and disease.

For optimal health, it’s best to consume minimally processed whole foods. This includes foods that are naturally low in fat, as well as those that contain naturally occurring fats, which aren’t harmful to your health when consumed in moderation.

Just one thing

Try this today: If the low calorie count of highly processed low fat snacks is causing you to choose them over fat-containing whole foods, try rethinking how you fill your plate.

Load up on non-starchy vegetables cooked in butter or dressed with olive oil (both of these help you absorb the nutrients from the veggies better), and have a smaller portion of starch and enough protein from meat or plant-based proteins to fill you up comfortably at each meal.

The combination of fat, fiber, and protein will help keep you satisfied, so you won’t need to reach for as many snacks.

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