"Fat free" may sound healthy, but sometimes it's not the smartest pick. Here are a few culprits to watch out for -- and what to eat instead.
Skim milk isn't the only way to go if you're dieting: A few studies suggest that people actually lose more weight when they drink whole milk. But keep in mind that whether you can have fat-free milk, yogurt, ice cream, or cheese depends on what else you're eating. Fat helps absorb nutrients -- like the vitamins A and D in dairy. "I wouldn't recommend a fat-free yogurt or cottage cheese as a stand-alone snack," says nutritionist Keri Gans, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet. "You need a little bit of fat to help fill you up and hold you over till your next meal." Adding a few almonds to your yogurt is the perfect solution, she says.
When it comes to cheese, Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, author of the Nutrition and You series, says it's a taste question. "A little bit of something fabulous will get the job done, where eating a lot of something mediocre ends up not being as satisfying, and you may end up taking in more calories."
2. Salad Dressing
Because fat helps absorb vitamins and nutrients, you won't reap all the benefits of those leafy greens without a little bit of it, says Gans. The key is choosing a healthy source. Monounsaturated fat (olive oil, nuts), is good for you, while saturated fat (butter) is generally not, says Gans. The experts recommend oil and balsamic vinegar as the healthiest options for salad dressing.
A study from Purdue University even found that that dressings made with monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) are a bit faster at absorbing nutrients than those with saturated or polyunsaturated fat (like canola oil).
3. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter may be fatty, but that fat is the healthy monounsaturated kind, which has also been shown to raise healthy cholesterol levels and promote weight loss. Reduced-fat peanut butter replaces this healthy fat with unhealthy sugar without doing anything to save calories. "You may be cutting fat, but you may not be cutting calories," says Salge Blake.
Like low-fat peanut butter, fat-free mayo usually has tons of sugar. But regular mayonnaise, while tasting better, has a lot of unnecessary calories. Your best bet is light mayo, since it's a lower-calorie option with just enough fat in it to give some flavor. Plus, you're going to get more natural ingredients. "The closer you are to regular mayo, the closer you are to whole ingredients," says Gans.
5. Cookies and Other Baked Goods
Fat-free cookies, pastries, and other goodies have a lot of extra sugar to make up for the fat that's been taken out. "If you're going to do a cookie, you might as well do the real thing," says Gans. "You'll be more satisfied and hopefully not end up eating the entire box." She says she's seen a lot of patients in the same predicament: only eating fat-free foods but not actually shedding any pounds. "They're just filling up on a lot of unhealthy carbs."