Swapping fro-yo for full-fat yogurt was a game-changer.
And like many Americans, their definition of healthy was eating fat-free or low-fat foods.
Gone were our potato chips, Cheeze Whiz spread onto Ritz crackers, and real ice cream. In their place we got SnackWells Devil's Food cookies, fat-free ice cream, Reduced Fat Cheez-Its, and Lay's WOW! Chips.
While the switch-up worked out OK for my family—probably because my parents started seriously exercising around the same time—plenty of others who tried a similar tactic actually got fatter. They didn't stop to think that products stamped "low fat" still had plenty of calories, in some cases as many (or more) as their full-fat counterparts.
It was also pretty common to overeat, since the "low fat" label made an otherwise garbage food seem virtuous. Meanwhile, many of those "healthy" foods were filled with artificial flavors and chemical additives designed to compensate for the lack of fat, says New York City-based nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg. (My family quickly ditched the fat-free WOW! chips, made with digestive demon Olestra.)
Fast forward to 2017, and I'm happy to say that I no longer have tons of fake food in my kitchen. That said, I was still avoiding many full-fat foods, assuming that the lighter options were better for me. I often bought low-fat cheese, light yogurt, fat-free coffee creamer, and fat-free salad dressing. That seemed perfectly reasonable, until I found myself one Monday morning out of both coffee creamer and skim milk. So I did the previously unthinkable: I drank my coffee black.
As I sipped, I realized that this was probably the first cup of java I'd had in over a decade that that was completely pure and natural—and it was pretty good. Maybe I didn't need to mask the real thing with artificial flavors after all.
Meanwhile, I'd been hearing more about the benefits of eating regular, full-fat foods and realized they might not be as dangerous as I thought: Some studies have found that people who eat full-fat dairy products, for example, actually have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
In an effort to go more natural and stop fearing fat, I decided to try eliminating any traces of artificially low-fat/fat-free foods in favor of the real thing. Here's what happened.
I GOT TO RELIVE MY CHILDHOOD.
As health-oriented as I am, I admit that good (ok, fattening) food and happy memories often go hand-in-hand. There's a reason why we serve cake at birthday parties rather than kale, right? For me, one of my favorite memories is of having big breakfasts after sleeping over at my grandparents' house. Bacon was the highlight of the meal, and the scent would reach every corner of the house. (Most times the bacon smell was my alarm clock, and once I caught whiff of it, I was up faster than Christmas morning.)
Now that I'm raising my own family, breakfasts rarely include bacon, and if they do it's the low-fat turkey variety. It satisfies my crunch cravings, but it's hardly the same. Once I banned low-fat foods, I decided to go old-school and cook up real bacon just like my grandma used to. Not only was it delicious, but the smell was as amazing as I remembered, and I was glad it lingered long after breakfast ended. Should you eat bacon every day? Probably not. But enjoying it once a week—and recreating family Sunday mornings of yesteryear—seems totally worth it.
I WAS REALLY SATISFIED, EVEN WHEN EATING LESS.
For years when I wanted something sweet, I'd opt for blah, flavorless fro-yo. To mask the unfortunate taste of nothingness, I'd pile on the candy toppings—which probably doubled my calorie intake. (Toppings are easy to overdo—here are 7 of the worst offenders.)
One day after I ditched low-fat junk, I decided to take my daughter for an after-school treat at the local ice cream shop in my town, which is as old-school as they come—cute checkered floors, quaint little tables, and definitely no fro-yo. So let's just say I was practically forced to get a scoop of good 'ol ice cream. Since I didn't want my daughter to see my larger-than-life adult portion size, I got a kid's size cup to match hers. I ate slowly and matched her bite for bite, and you know what? One scoop of the real stuff was just right. I didn't feel like I was missing out at all.
I CONSUMED FEWER CALORIES OVER THE COURSE OF THE DAY.
I don't normally track my calorie intake, but when I started this experiment I started paying more attention to those numbers to see how they compared. And I was surprised to realize that eating more "regular" foods translated to me taking in fewer calories.
In the past, I'd typically eat a Yoplait Light Strawberry Yogurt with only 100 calories for breakfast—but I was usually hungry again before finishing my cup of coffee. So I'd soon go searching for something else to nibble on, and I'd essentially end up eating a second breakfast. The result: I'd eaten 300+ calories before noon.
When I swapped my usual yogurt for Fage Total Plain Greek Yogurt with 190 calories and put some actual berries on top, I was done. The thought of consuming anything else before lunch made me feel sick—I was so full. (Remember these four things before buying Greek yogurt.)
I noticed something similar when it came to snacks. Normally a snack for me might be an apple, banana, or some pretzels. That would satisfy me for a little while, but not for long, so I'd keep on snacking. Adding in some fat made a big difference. I decided to snack on almonds whenever a craving hit—a small handful goes a long way—and added pumpkin seeds to my yogurt. Perhaps not surprisingly, I felt fuller longer.
The same thing happened at dinner. Although I mostly cook things like grilled chicken and veggies, every now and then I'd experiment with a creamy pasta dish. But skim milk doesn't really provide much creaminess, and low-fat cheese doesn't melt especially well. While the lackluster taste should have dissuaded me, I probably ate more because it wasn't so satisfying. Once I used the real stuff, a smaller portion did the trick.
Now that it's been almost two months since I changed my eating habits, I realize I'd been a little scared of eating more fat, probably because I'd been brainwashed as a child into thinking it's always terrible. The truth is that fat is a nutrient your body actually needs—for cell growth, nutrient absorption, and energy—and since it digests slowly you feel satisfied for a longer period of time and eat less overall. (Hit the reset button—and burn fat like crazy with The Body Clock Diet!)
I never weigh myself, so I can't tell you if I've lost any weight since eating more fat. But I do know that I'm having fewer cravings, I'm enjoying cooking more, and my jeans are sliding on. Most importantly, I feel like I'm healthier. Probably because I am.