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Don’t take an extra bite when you’re eating ‘lite’

Do you feel less guilty about eating something labelled as ‘low fat’ or ‘light’? Well, if you’re trying to lose weight, swapping to these ‘healthier’ options may not be as helpful as you’d think…

This month we’ve been looking at the differences between products labelled as low fat, reduced fat and light compared to their standard versions. In our survey, six in ten Brits said they regularly eat these types of foods, but we’ve found they often contain similar calorie content to supposedly less-healthy options.

Low-fat foods under the microscope

For instance, the difference between a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive and the McVitie’s Light Chocolate Digestive is just eight calories – you could burn that off in under a minute of swimming. The light version does contain 30% less fat, but it doesn’t contain 30% fewer calories and this is often where the problem lies.

Products labelled with ‘lite’ or ‘low fat’ only have to contain 30% less fat than the standard version, yet just one in five people told us they knew this.

Just because something is labelled as ‘light’, ‘lite’ or ‘reduced fat’ don’t assume it’s actually low in fat. For example, a ‘light’ cheese can still be high in fat – Cathedral City mature cheddar has 34.9g of fat per 100g, and the ‘lighter’ version has 21.8g. Although that’s 30% less fat, it’s still classed as high.

Low-fat foods can become even more mystifying when you compare them to standard products from other companies. For example, a Tesco low-fat yogurt has more calories per pot (130) compared to Activia standard yoghurt (123 calories). The Tesco yogurt also contained more sugar – 20.2g (more than four teaspoons) per pot compared to 16.9g!

Eating more due to the ‘health halo’

Research from Cornell University in the US showed that people who were given products labelled as light and low fat ate up to 50% more than they did with the same standard product. This is called the ‘health halo’.

And almost to confirm this, at the weekend a friend told me that his girlfriend had started buying Walkers Baked crisps in place of the standard variety. He confessed that he eats two packets instead of one!

So, while many low-fat and light foods can help in weight loss or maintaining calorie intake, it’s clearly not always the case. Instead of immediately reaching for these options, I’d recommend comparing the calorie content of a few versions while you’re in the supermarket. And that’s something that would be much simpler if we had clear traffic-light labelling on all food products.

Do you buy low-fat and light foods in the hope of being healthier, but then end up eating more of them?


Fat isn’t bad for you. It doesn’t cause obesity, heart disease, cancer etc. Processed food, junk, artificial sweetener, refined sugar, too many calories are grains are bad for you.

Whoops! That should be “and” grains…

To put that in perspective, remember that fats provide more calories for a given weight than anything else in food.

But you can easily have 125g of carbs in one meal (pasta); you wouldn’t have 125g of fat (half a block of butter) in one go. So you actually get more calories from carbs …

Carry on if you want to follow the example of the late Dr Atkins.

Avoid the goods labelled as lite or healthy eating like the plague. They are often bland and tastless compared with the traditional goods.The best way to avoid being over weight is to avoid over eating and to stop contiuous snacking. Good luck.

I am not sure what can be done other than providing clear labelling of all food products, as Shefalee suggests. The use of terms such as ‘healthy eating’ should be either controlled on banned.

I’ve been wondering about the advantage of 1% milk over semi-skimmed. If you only use about 200ml of milk per day, the difference must surely be minimal. Any suggestions as to the number of calories saved ?

Probably the main benefit of skimmed milk is to cut down on saturated fat intake. I have noticed that people tend to use more skimmed milk in coffee, presumably relying on colour to decide how much to add.

Given the choice I would prefer skimmed milk in tea, semi-skimmed in instant coffee and full-cream milk with muesli, and I enjoy staying with friends that buy all three varieties. I just buy semi-skimmed.

I confess that I’ve been a victim of the ‘health halo’ – eating more of a food because it’s low fat. But after starting a controlled diet, I soon began to notice how switching to ‘light’ versions of foods wasn’t always as beneficial as I’d believed. I certainly didn’t know that a product only had to contain 30% less fat to be considered low-fat. All this label-checking tends to make my shopping trips fairly lengthy!

You have to read the information and ignore the labels that manufacturers dream up. Not always easy to. I was looking at a barm cake – the nutritional information was per 100g. It did not tell me how much an average barm cake weighed.

If we think a manufacturer is being disingenuous, we just don’t buy the product. They only understand profits.

par ailleurs says:
21 September 2012

The bottom line here is that food manufacturers are in it for the potential profit. Your health is not their primary concern.
Beat them at their own game and (a) don’t buy the stuff (b) cook your own (c) restrict the things you know deep down are bad for you and include them in your diet as occasional treats only.
Low fat, lite etc etc just means low flavour or at best, artificial taste.
You don’t need to be a professional dietician to work out how much of any type of food to eat. Eat sensibly and well and in moderation on a normal day, take a bit of some sort of exercise if you can and then once in a while eat something really tasty and nutritionally useless. You’ll enjoy it all the more. The one proviso is that this approach does need total personal honesty. That’s the tricky bit!

Snowdin says:
21 September 2012

The supermarkets are finally being dragged licking and screaming to the traffic lights, which is probably the only way this attempt at better nutrition will get a fair trial. Politicians are a joke – they are always more than happy to overstuff enquiry committees full of big business representatives. Neither can be trusted where health is concerned. How long did it take to pass laws restricting smoking after Sir Richard Doll clearly showed smoking, not tarmac or car fumes, killed people in 1950?
I agree the message is about eating sensibly and in moderation. Fat does improve some taste – try Chicken Basquaise without the chicken skin and chorizos, and you need fat to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A D E and K, so it’s not about extremes but sensible eating. Sad to say it’s difficult to believe that we will ever get round the grotesque distorsion of the English language by food manufacturers but hopefully traffic lights are a boundary where they have to stop. Well done Which.

Walter Massey says:
21 September 2012

The only yogurt to buy that is classed as Diet is Irish Probiotic Yogurt, with no added sugar and fat free at approximately only 67 calories per 125 gram pot size, and at present on special offer at Morrisons for £1 for a pack of four with real fruit and sweetener

Can’t we just have ordinary yoghurt without sweetener and without the probiotic con?

The first poster is correct in that dietary fat is not the problem in rising obesity, but the food industry has seized on the ‘low-fat = healthy’ message.
The real enemy is the vastly increased quantities of sugar/refined carbs that are being consumed in these times, espec via processed “low fat, healthy” ones, and their effects on insulin levels. Sugar/corn syrup is cheap and so the industry use it wherever possible.

But don’t take my word for it – for an expert’s view on this see Dr. Robert H Lustig’s lecture – Sugar: The Bitter Truth at:

It’s 90m long but is very insightful.

For too long we have been mis-lead into believing that low fat is good. I have improved health on these lines: 1. Fat is not fattening. 2. Protein is more satisfying than carbs. 3. Natural, not manufactured foods are better for you. 4.Do not count calories, use a tape-measure rather than scales. 5. Lower your intake of sugar, flour and their products,also keep in check potatoes,rice and pasta. Eat the burger and not the bun and take a little exercise and enjoy life!

Fat is not fattening

May I suggest that you study elementary nutrition?

I did not mean this as a personal criticism, Peter. It is worrying that many believe that fat is not fattening, when it has been known for decades that it is the component of food that provides most calories, by weight.

Of course we should limit the amount of carbohydrate we eat. The best advice is that we should eat a balanced diet (and not too much of it) coupled with plenty of exercise.

par ailleurs says:
23 September 2012

Actually wavechange, he is more right than you think and nutritionists are gradually revising old advice. The recent TV programmes fronted by Michael Moseley, who is certainly not a trendy fly-by-night type, showed just that. Fats are nowhere near as dangerous as sugars (all sugars at that) and excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates. It’s not mainstream yet but it is being studied seriously by proper scientists.

I am sure that dietary advice will evolve, but eating what is generally regarded as a balanced diet has got to be better than crank diets such as the Atkins diet.

What is clear is that many of us are eating far more than we need to and this coupled with little exercise is the reason for obesity. Many eat far too much sweet food and find it somewhat addictive. It is well known that refined carbohydrates are converted rapidly to sugars but unrefined carbohydrates are also metabolised to produce sugars, with the bonus of providing dietary fibre. Stored fats can also be used to produce sugars, a process known as gluconeogenesis. That’s what must happen to lose flab.

par ailleurs says:
23 September 2012

This convo has just apparently swallowed my reply which took a while to type! Never mind, I’m off for my roast chicken (with skin!) and all the trimmings. And after following the advice from Mr Moseley I’ve so far lost a stone and it’s continuing. Something’s happening somewhere/how and I’m not going hungry either.

Perhaps we should be discussing nutrition on another Conversation. This one is about lower fat versions of products.

Like many I use semi-skimmed milk and low-fat natural yoghurt. These products are widely sold and are a well accepted way of eating food with fewer calories.

I go for semi skimmed and low fat where possible, but some times I can’t help wondering if it’s more worthwhile to simply buy full fat, e.g, with cheese, and then use less of it. A taste test to see which was the best ‘heath value’ in terms of, how much needs to be used to get a decent flavor and whether it’s worth buying the low fat stuff at all, would be interesting to read!

I dont think it is coincidental that obesity rates have soared as low fat foods have become more popular. I don’t think they are filling and made me crave more food.

What I have been doing for the last year or so is only eating “real” food. No food designed in a laboratory with loads of chemicals.
My daily menu is normally 2 boiled eggs, meat salad with olive oil for lunch and fish/ meat with loads of veg for evening meal.
The odd piece of fruit and dark chocolate a couple of times a week.
Makes me laugh when people say it is a fad diet. I have much more energy now I have stopped eating refined carbs and processed food. I even sleep better.

There is a site called Marks Daily Apple who encourage this way of eating, it is basically the Paleo diet, the way man ate for millions of years before refined carbs such as bread/ pasta etc were eaten.

Snowdin says:
8 October 2012

At least when you see “Heston” on a package you know there’s no pretence at healthy eating. Waitrose have removed the standard traffic lights system from the new Heston from Waitrose range, presumably due to embarrassment if the lasagne is anything to go by.