Beware of fat-free products

Per gram, fat has more than twice the calories of carbohydrate or protein. If you're trying to lose weight, fat-free foods might sound like just the ticket. But don't be fooled by "fat-free" food labels.

  • Fat-free can still have carbohydrates. Fat-free foods can have more carbohydrates and contain nearly as many calories as the standard version of the same food. The lesson? You guessed it. Compare food labels for fat-free and standard products carefully before you make a decision.

And remember that the amount of total fat listed on a food label doesn't tell the whole story. Look for a breakdown of types of fat.

  • Choose healthier fats. Although still high in calories, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol and protect your heart.
  • Limit unhealthy fats. Saturated and trans fats raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease.

Know what counts as a free food

Just as food labels can help you rule out certain foods, food labels can also serve as your guide to free foods. A free food is one with:

  • Fewer than 20 calories a serving
  • Less than 5 grams of carbohydrate a serving

You can include some free foods in your diet as often as you'd like. Examples include:

  • Diet sodas
  • Sugar-free flavored gelatin
  • Sugar-free gum

Do the math

  • Pay attention to serving sizes. The serving sizes listed on food labels may be different from the serving sizes in your meal plan. If you eat twice the serving size listed on the label, you also double the calories, fat, carbohydrate, protein, sodium and the other contents.
  • Consider your daily calorie goals. The same goes for the Daily Value listed on food labels. This percentage, which is based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, helps you gauge how much of a specific nutrient one serving of food contains compared with recommendations for the whole day. Five percent or less is low; 20 percent or more is high. Look for foods with fats, cholesterol and sodium on the low end of Daily Value; keep fiber, vitamins and minerals on the high end. If your doctor or registered dietitian recommends more or less than 2,000 calories a day, you may need to adjust the percentage accordingly — or simply use the percentage as a general frame of reference.

The bottom line

What you eat is up to you. Whether you're trying to reduce the amount of fat, cholesterol and sodium in your diet or boost the amount of fiber, whole grains and other healthy nutrients, use food labels to help meet your healthy-eating goals.

Jun. 25, 2013 See more In-depth