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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!


hi Jennifer

To be considered ‘low-fat’ the item has to contain less than 3% fat. But to foods labelled as light, lite and reduced only have to contain 30% less fat than the standard variety.
But the fact is it is confusing.

Traffic lights should help to cut down the time you spend looking at food labels, as at a glance you can see what foods are high (red), medium (amber) and low (green) in sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt. Asda, The Co-op, M&S, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose already offer traffic lights and Morrisons, Tesco, Aldi and Lidl have now agreed to add them to their labels in the near future.


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!