For everybody’s favorite snack, there is usually a ‘lite’ alternative. These are foods that almost taste like the original, but claim to have only a tiny portion of the original calories. They’ve long been hailed as a dieter’s best friend, allowing people to ‘cheat’ on their diets without ingesting any excess calories.
However, new research has shown that many of these foods will actually cause us to gain weight, because of the way the brain is wired to react to high-fat foods.
What Are Fake Fats?
Fake fats, simply put, are synthetic compounds that look like fat and act like fat, but don’t actually have as many or any calories at all – usually by virtue of not being digestible by the human body. A good example is Low-Fat Pringles, which are not made of potatoes or corn but a synthetic fat substitute called Olestra. Olestra can’t be digested, so it passes through our bodies without giving us any calories.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, a complex experiment performed with several groups of rats says otherwise.
The Proof is in the Pringle
In this experiment, researchers divided up rats into two groups. One group got regular, natural, healthy low-fat rat food, and the other group got a higher-fat content rat food, but both were natural foods free from synthetics.
They then further divided up each group of rats, and gave each subgroup either regular Pringles with their food, or Low-Fat Pringles. The assumption was that those rats who ate the Low-Fat Pringles would not gain as much weight as those who ate the regular ones.
The results were exactly the opposite. What they found was that the rats on the high-fat diet who snacked on Low-Fat Pringles gained the most weight out of all groups. They also didn’t lose weight after the fake fat chips were removed.
In the groups that were eating healthy low-fat rat food, no rats gained any significant weight. However, when they were switched to high-fat rat food, the group that had been eating fake-fat chips ate significantly more food, and gained a lot of weight.
So what does this mean? It means that fake-fat foods, while containing no calories on their own, tend to make us eat more and put on weight more from the other foods that we eat. David DiSalvo, health columnist at Forbes.com, pointed out that it’s got a lot to do with how the brain reacts when it thinks the body is eating fat:
“The reason this happens is that the brain, for all its wonder, can be duped. Artificial fat elicits similar biological responses as real fat, including increased salivation, hormonal reactions, and metabolic changes. In other words, the brain is gearing up the body for a burst of calories. When the calories don’t arrive, the brain panics, so to speak, and kicks into starvation mode by converting even more calories into fat.
Past research found that eating artificial sweeteners catalyzes a similar effect. The brain is signaled by the taste of the sweetener to expect a load of calories, and when they aren’t delivered the fat storage process accelerates.”