Can “Fat-Free” Make You Fat?

We help you "decode" the terms of everyday food products.

Product labeling can be confusing. All these foods labeled as “fat-free” or “low in sugar” trick consumers into believing a product is a healthy choice. But food is business and most companies are only interested in profit, and not your health. So what do these claims really mean? We help you “decode” the terms of everyday food products to make your next grocery trip a lot easier.

Let’s look at these food labels:


What it Means: For a product to be labeled sugar-free, it must have under 0.5 grams of sugar per serving

The Damaging Effects of Consuming Too Much Refined Sugar

Sugar-free products sound like the best ever created. They keep the same sweet taste, but without packing any sugars. Awesome, right? Well, not so fast. That’s not exactly how it works. These sugar-free products, marketed as weight-loss friendly, aren’t that friendly after all.

This label essentially means artificial sweeteners, a modern construct produced in a laboratory, have taken the place of real food. Sure, artificial sweeteners don’t have calories, but they are hundreds of times sweeter than real sugar. This causes some serious confusion for your body. When you eat something sweet, your body expects calories to follow. Because artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories, your body looks for them later in the day (Hello, late-night crackers binge.)

The Not So Sweet Truth About Artificial Sweeteners 

Weight gain has actually been noted as more common with artificial sweeteners than with processed sugar. This is because the sweet taste of artificial sweeteners on your tongue triggers the release of insulin to offset the expected sugar. However, no actual sugar is being consumed and the insulin goes to work on whatever little sugar is actually in the body. This results in hypoglycemia, which in turn makes a person feel hungry. The person ends up eating more and may, therefore, gain weight over time.

artificial sweeteners

It also doesn’t help that just like sugar, artificial sweeteners can be seriously addictive. One study conducted on rats found that they were more easily addicted to saccharin, “an intense calorie-free sweetener,” than to cocaine.

What’s worse, multiple studies have shown artificial sweeteners to have negative consequences on our health.  For example, a study from Purdue University has found that frequent consumers of these artificial sugar substitutes may be at an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.


What These Terms Mean:

  • “Fat-free” foods must have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving
  • “Low-fat” foods must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving
  • “Reduced-fat” foods must have at least 25% less fat than comparable products
  • “Light” foods must have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat

Fat-free foods make us subconsciously conclude that they cannot make us ‘fat’. We could not be more wrong. In fact, many of these products have almost the same amount of calories as their ‘full fat’ counterpart. The problem is that because fat has been taken out, something else has to be added in order to preserve the taste of the food. To ensure that ‘fat-free- products aren’t also taste-free, companies often load the product with sugar to make up for the lost flavor. Many of these products are higher in sodium, salt and other troublesome ingredients and additives. This can quickly increase your intake of processed sugar to an unhealthy level.  

This is particularly problematic because many tend to believe that foods labeled as ‘low-fat’ are also lower in calories. This results in overeating and thus weight gain. A Cornell University study found that people ate up to 50 percent more when a package was labeled “low-fat” compared to a package with no such labeling.


Next time you see a low-fat or fat-free label on a processed food, take the time to read the nutritional information to find out what the trade-off is.

Dangers Of Low Fat

Foods that replace healthy fats with sugars don’t have as much satiety power. Sugars burn much faster than fats, we get hungry more quickly and end up eating more. It is also important to remember that fat is not your enemy. Dietary fat is crucial for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A, D, K and E. All of which are essential to your health.

good fat

The American Heart Association recommends keeping the amount of fat in your diet down to about 30%. But what is also important, is the kind of fat that you consume.

“Good” fats include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

  • Monounsaturated fats have been found to lower LDL “bad cholesterol” in the bloodstream and raise the amount of HDL “good cholesterol
  • Polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon also help lower LDL cholesterol

Getting a balance of the right types of fat in your diet is crucial to proper nutrition. Avocado, olive oil, almonds, tuna, salmon are all excellent sources of healthy fats. Completely eliminating fat from your diet is dangerous to your health. They key is to eat the right amount of the right kind.

good fat

Know What You Are Eating 

The best thing you can do for yourself is to carefully read the ingredient label. If you find a long list of ingredients—many of which you can’t pronounce— I suggest you put the product down and head to the produce section. Choose whole, natural foods. The closer the food is to its source, the less you have to worry about the influx of unknown, harmful chemicals. Keep that in mind the next time you make a trip to the grocery store.

Want to read more? Find out what science teaches us about food cravings on our blog.

Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
Use our free guide to design your very own personalized nutrition plan.
Download e-Book
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
... start working on your unique diet plan.
Download E-Book

Wiktoria Banda

Wiktoria is a content writer and illustrator at Shape.
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
Use our free guide to design your very own personalized nutrition plan.
Download e-Book
Get the Ultimate Nutrition Guide
... start working on your unique diet plan.
Download E-Book