Research: Low Carb, Fat, and Calorie Claims: Hype or Healthy?

Low Fat


“Low-Content” Nutrient Claims in the United States Don’t Add Up

I can remember the big low-fat claims for nearly a half century, but the fact is that this fight has been going on for over a century. Experts pushed the concept that fat was bad for you and you should avoid it at all cost.  The target of cause has shifted over the last hundred years, but each shift has been equally mistargeted.  The history is important, but what is the real culprit in the cause of obesity?  

The history of fat consumption as a cause of obesity started to pick up in the post-war 1950s as physicians and scientists began to warn of the evils of fat for both weight loss and cardiovascular health through the support of the Framingham study and others.  This hypothesis clarified itself to become the diet-heart hypothesis that is found in many diets today.  The cornerstone is that diets that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol are a major cause of coronary heart disease.    

The true craze did not start until the 1980s when a huge amount of low-fat and no-fat products hit the stores.  Chips cooked with fake fat that caused a greasy oil residue around the toilet bowl and low-fat cookies that replaced the fat with sugar.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many studies began to suggest that the real culprit was an artificial fat called trans fat.  Who would have guessed that this fake food would cause harm in humans?  It only took 20-30 years for the FDA to take action and limit the use of trans-fats.  

Young woman pinching an inch

Pinching an inch

I have not discussed low-carb and low-calorie foods, but they have a similar history of research and vilification as low-fat that resulted in a suggestion in limitations in certain foods to lower one’s weight or risk of disease.  Some studies argue both ways, and there is limited evidence that indicates that we should eliminate them from our diets.  I suspect that shortly we will find that fake sugars are equally bad.  The fact is that moderation is likely the answer.  

A new study completed in 2017 by the University of North Carolina looked at nutrient claims that are used as marketing tactics[1].  The researchers found that association between claims and nutritional quality of products is likely lower than expected by the public.  The study is a cross-sectional analysis of 80 million food and drink purchases by 40,000 US households from 2008-2012.  The results revealed that 13% of food and 35% of beverage purchases have a low nutrient content and a low-fat, low-carb, or low-calories claim on the packaging.  That means that 35% of purchased beverages fit into the sweetened beverage or juice groups and has a claim of being low-fat or low-calorie.  In particular, despite the claim, the nutritional profile of the purchased foods and beverages were not necessarily better.  

The bottom line:  The USDA and FDA have allowed the packaging of foods to contain claims that give shoppers a means to search for foods that are low in certain nutrients.  This packaging is nothing more than an advertising gimmick or hype that has a goal of increasing purchases.  The low-fat claim may give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it is not healthier.  The variations in nutrient density by claim type and food and beverage group suggests that claims mislead, to say the least, and the overall nutritional quality of the foods is often suspect.  These ‘no-fat’ or ‘no-sugar’ labels do not guarantee nutritional quality.  I recommend that you carefully read the labels before you purchase foods featuring claims of low- or no nutrients because they do not necessarily offer the better overall nutrition implied by the labeling.  I would limit foods that use fake sweeteners and other nutrients that you cannot digest. 

[1]Taillie et al., “No Fat, No Sugar, No Salt . . . No Problem? Prevalence of ‘Low-Content’ Nutrient Claims and Their Associations with the Nutritional Profile of Food and Beverage Purchases in the United States.”
Taillie, Lindsey Smith, Shu Wen Ng, Ya Xue, Emily Busey, and Matthew Harding. “No Fat, No Sugar, No Salt . . . No Problem? Prevalence of ‘Low-Content’ Nutrient Claims and Their Associations with the Nutritional Profile of Food and Beverage Purchases in the United States.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Elsevier BV, March 2017. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2017.01.011
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About the Author

I am a family physician who has served in the US Army. In 2016, I found myself overweight, out of shape, and unhealthy, so I made a change to improve my health. This blog is the chronology of my path to better health and what I have learned along the way.

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