The Low-Fat Myth

Did you know? As a result of the low-fat guidelines from health professionals and industry, we eat 40% more grains as white bread, pasta and corn than in 1970. Only a tiny portion of these are in fact whole grain products.
Source: Berkeley Health & Wellness Newsletter (Dec. 1999)

Myth: Low-fat products are useful in weight reduction.
Fact: There is no evidence supporting that a low-fat diet reduces our waistlines.

Many of you have heard years of hype surrounding the low-fat craze. Gaining popularity and peaking in the 1990s, the ideals of consuming low-fat foods to reduce your body fat seemed like a no-brainer, but the artificial ingredients in these foods do nothing for our waistlines.

In 2001, the Harvard School of Public Medicine published a critical review of the top low-fat diet studies to date in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Harvard vehemently disputed any and all medical claims that supported low-fat foods and low-fat ideals, stating that these messages caused harm not good. This message has been discussed and written about numerous times, most notably by the investigative journalists, Michael Pollan and Gary Taubes in their books: Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health (2007); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (2011). Although Mr. Taubes is NOT a medical professional, he has twice presented at the grand rounds in the prestigious medical hospital, The Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, regarding his findings on the fallacy of low-fat messages.

While we now eat more calories overall, gram for gram, our fat intakes remain the same today as in the 1950s, despite the plethora of low-fat products. The momentum of the low-fat diet can be traced to the American Heart Association’s position in 1960 that the link to heart disease and ill health rested with the fat intakes of Americans. Unfortunately, the AHA’s inertia to drive our population toward low fat occurred prematurely, before two key research streams were finished:

1) The conclusion of the American-based studies on fat, which, retrospectively, provide no evidence to support the low-fat hypothesis.
2) The conclusion of European-based research indicating that weight gain was the result of hormonal changes, primarily insulin, and other enzymatic and biochemical processes.

Perhaps the most striking example of this inertia rests in the $500 million Women’s Health Initiative study (although this example is repeated in most other large-scale studies on low-fat diets), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to record the results of 162,000 women and their outcomes to hormone replacement therapy and to a low-fat diet. The study was supposed to run for 15 years, from 1991 through 2006, but was stopped in 2001 when researchers identified that women receiving one of the study interventions (hormone replacement therapy) had a higher incidence of death, heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and pulmonary embolisms than women receiving only a placebo.

Moreover, the low-fat diet interventions that were built into this study did not achieve the expected results of reduced heart disease nor of reduced body weight (hence the reason Harvard took notice). Despite the results of this study, or lack thereof, health authorities like the NIH and World Health Organization (WHO) continued to support the messages of low fat, stating the study was flawed. This perpetuated the idea that low-fat foods were good for us.

Newer science understands that food contains literally thousands of micronutrients having complex interactions to create good health and spur weight loss. It’s impossible to replicate these in a lab or in manufactured food, so I recommend that whenever possible, you choose natural fat over the manufactured fat or fat-free products.

The low-fat myth is all fiction, and the fact is eating a well-balanced diet of real foods will always get better results. Check out our recipes for full nutritional balance.