Is Low Fat Healthy?

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Is Low Fat Healthy?

Like most things in the nutrition world, fats are back in style. At least certain kinds, and in certain amounts. Some healthcare providers still recommend a low-fat diet, but is it really healthy? Here’s the scoop on fats, what they are, which ones are good (or bad), and what to do about them.

Low Fat Diets

It’s no secret that fats have had a bad reputation in recent decades. They’ve generally been discouraged by most in the medical community and nutritional fields. Ever since Ancel Keys presented his lipid heart hypothesis, doctors have sung the health benefits of reduced fat and fat-free diets.

In more recent years though we’ve seen a turnaround when it comes to dietary guidelines for fat. Scientists recognize some fat is necessary for health. While the medical community isn’t as quick to embrace things like butter and coconut oil, high-fat diets are currently more popular with the public.

If someone is experiencing gallbladder problems or certain health issues, it may be medically necessary to opt for lower-fat foods for a season. This is something to discuss with your healthcare practitioner or a functional nutritionist. Here’s a list of nonfat and low-fat options:

List of Low-Fat Foods

These foods are commonly recommended by mainstream dietitians and doctors. However, not all of them are healthy options. The more processed our food is, the less nutrition it has.

  • Lean meats like skinless poultry. Lean cuts like chicken breast are popular.
  • White fish, like cod, flounder, or pollock. Opt for wild-caught.
  • Whole grains, like brown rice, whole wheat, cereals, and whole-grain bread (see below)
  • Legumes, beans, and lentils (here’s my take on beans)
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Fresh or frozen fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Low-fat dairy (don’t recommend)
  • Egg whites

My Take on the Above

I typically avoid grains for several health reasons. And on the occasion I do have rice, it’s white rice instead of brown. You also won’t find me with whole wheat sandwich bread. These grains are harder to digest and have anti-nutrients, like phytic acid and arsenic. Ancient grains, like einkorn and fermented grains (sourdough), are better options.

Artificially reduced fat content, like low-fat cream, also doesn’t make my healthy eating list. Low-fat cottage cheese, fat-free cream cheese, skim milk, and low-fat yogurt are other commonly recommended options. Pasteurized, low-fat dairy products lack nutrition and can spike blood sugar. They’ve also been linked with higher rates of obesity.

If someone needs to reduce fat intake for a while, some options are healthier to focus on.

Fear of Fat

Many foods that are considered “healthy” by the majority of Americans carry a low-fat label. I once had a friend tell me she was going on the slim-fast and Special-K diet (cringe) because it was “low-fat.”

I could understand the fat phobia if perhaps fat had been linked to weight gain or disease incidence. Or maybe if America’s obesity epidemic had lessened since the low-fat craze. Or maybe if eating a low-fat diet actually caused long-term weight loss (anyone tried it?).

The sad fact is many people accept the idea fat is bad without understanding how we need it. Within the past decade fat intake from certain “good fats” has gone up, but what makes a good fat? And why do we need them?

What You’re Made of

Chemically, all fats are made up of varying numbers of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon molecules. Each carbon atom is bonded to two other carbon atoms, and the more carbon atoms there are in a given fatty acid, the longer it will be. Fatty acids with longer chains typically have a higher melting point and yield more energy per molecule when metabolized.

Let’s break down the different types of fat and what they mean.

  • Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen. They’re also solid or firm at room temperature. Examples include butter, coconut oil, and red meat.
  • Monounsaturated fats have fewer hydrogen atoms so they’re liquid at room temperature. Avocados and nuts are good examples.
  • Polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid and they’re considered essential. Meaning our body can’t make them, we have to get them from food. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the two main kinds. The issue is where we get them from and in what ratio.
  • Trans Fats naturally occur in small amounts in some animal foods. But the bad kind is artificially manipulated unsaturated fat. This one type of fat has been linked to disease.

Why We Need Fat

Now that we got biology out of the way, what does this mean in the dietary world?

We need essential fatty acids to help our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins. They’re also necessary for healthy skin, hair, and cell function. According to Harvard, they’re essential for blood clotting, muscles, building our cells, and fighting inflammation. Those are just a few of the reasons.

Fats provide 9 calories per gram and are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol (a source of energy) once in the body. When toxins enter the body and reach unsafe levels, the body attempts to equalize them by storing them in fat tissue. If we’re eating high levels of toxins (not fats) our body can store them, leading to disease.

So does fat make you fat?

While dietary fat is often blamed for weight gain, nothing happens in a vacuum. The body can break down fat into glucose and use it for energy. Although this process takes more energy than using the sugar already in our blood. Grains, processed carbs, and even sweet fruit become easy sources of energy.

Over time these easy energy sources can lead to insulin and leptin resistance. Insulin resistance can then lead to type 2 diabetes and metabolic disorders. Any extra carbohydrates we don’t use right away for energy end up stored as fat. Constantly feeding our body quick carbs means we don’t tap into our energy reserves (body fat). This is why too many carbs, sugar, and processed foods can make us gain unhealthy weight.

So if fats aren’t entirely to blame, what fats are we supposed to eat and what to avoid?

Saturated Fats: Friend or Foe?

The American Heart Association recommends getting a max of 6% of our calories from saturated fat. The idea is too much of this fat can raise cholesterol levels and lead to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Dietitians and doctors once thought heart health relied on cutting out saturated fats.

But even the mainstream medical community is starting to admit the risk of heart disease is more nuanced than that. A 2010 meta-analysis of nearly 350,000 people showed there’s little to no evidence saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. Harvard reports replacing saturated fats with carbs is more likely to have a negative effect on heart health.

They still hold that too much saturated fat can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol. Yet studies show this increase doesn’t lead to a higher death rate. 

Foods With Saturated Fat

Saturated fats are important for proper body functions. They also get most of the heat from the low-fat crowd. We need saturated fats in order to:

  • absorb certain vitamins
  • for calcium uptake
  • immune function
  • cell membrane structure

Contrary to what most experts say, a healthy, whole foods, traditional diet with saturated fat can actually help with weight loss. Many also notice better skin health, more energy, fewer cravings, and better sleep.

Here are foods that are good sources of saturated fat:

  • Red meat (Beef, pork, lamb)
  • Chicken (especially with skin)
  • Tallow and lard
  • Grass-fed dairy products (butter, cheese, ice cream)
  • Eggs
  • Coconut oil and coconut products
  • Palm oil (many people avoid it due to sustainability issues)
  • Olive oil (has a small amount of saturated fat)

Monounsaturated Fats 

Of all the fats, these are the most widely accepted. I like monounsaturated fats in moderation and include them in my meal plan. You can find them in varying amounts in certain oils, including:

  • olive oil
  • sunflower oil (high oleic is healthier)
  • sesame oil
  • flax oil
  • peanut oil and peanut butter (has both mono and polyunsaturated fats)
  • avocados
  • nuts and seeds

Some monounsaturated fats may not be the best option for cooking with though. There’s some concern high temps can create unhealthy free radicals. Research shows olive oil is safe to cook and bake with, but it’s not my first choice. I prefer to save my (pricier) olive oil for homemade salad dressings or drizzled over soups. When I was in a weight loss phase, I ate lots of olive oil!

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)

PUFAs are vegetable oils that are liquid even at cold temperatures. They can easily go rancid and break down into free radicals when heated. They’re also the most likely to be used for frying foods. You’ll also find them in butter substitutes, like margarine.

To add insult to injury, most of these oils are hydrogenated. This makes them last longer on the shelf. However, they’re unusable to the body since we can’t metabolize them. They can also create free-radical damage.

You’ll see polyunsaturated fats under names like corn, cottonseed, canola, vegetable, soybean, peanut, etc and most of them often carry the title “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” My general advice to everyone is to completely avoid these types of fats, especially if they have been heated.

While I don’t ever recommend highly processed polyunsaturated fats, there are some positives.

Omega-3: The Good Side of PUFAs

PUFAs naturally occur in certain plant and animal foods. And these types of food also have anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. The issue is when they’re highly refined and out of balance. Most people eat way more omega-6 fats, but ideally, we’d have omega-3 and omega-6 in a 1:1 ratio. To combat this, many people now take omega-3 supplements.

I prefer to get my omega-3 fats from food as much as possible, and animal foods are the best source. Grass-fed and pasture-raised products are much higher in omega-3. While conventionally grain-fed raised animals have more omega-6 fats.

Here are some examples of healthy polyunsaturated fat (aka the omega-3 version)

  • Fatty fish (anchovies, sardines, salmon. etc.)
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Free range eggs

Flax and chia seeds have ALA omega-3 which is poorly converted by the body. I still use flax and chia for their health benefits, but they’re not the best source of omega-3s.

Omega-3s help with brain function, fight inflammation and boost energy levels. They also have the much-touted ALA, DHA, and EPA fats that are now added to many foods. I get my omega-3s from dietary sources, like anchovies and sardines.

Trans Fats

This fat completely deserves the heat it’s been getting. Hydrogenated trans fats aren’t healthy in any amount. This process turns unsaturated fats into much more dangerous trans fats. Our cells can’t absorb it which messes up their function.

Studies connect these guys to heart disease, obesity, abdominal fat, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Trans fats are one of my arguments against the “everything in moderation” idea, as they aren’t safe in any amount.

As of 2020 the FDA no longer allows any amount of fat from added trans fats. Many countries around the world have also phased it out. In response, scientists turned to creating fully hydrogenated fats by replacing part of the fat molecule with stearic acid.

These “interesterified fats” are what allow snack makers to place that lovely “no-trans fat” label on their packaging. Don’t be fooled! Interesterified fats are just as dangerous. Some studies show they can slow down metabolism and negatively affect heart health.

They haven’t been thoroughly studied for safety and there are still unanswered questions. We don’t fully know yet how they affect fat and glucose metabolism, inflammation, or blood health. Most studies have been done in young, healthy males, which leaves out most of the population.

What I Do

When I first started eating real food, I was the biggest cheerleader for saturated fats. I’d typically drink 1/4 cup of coconut oil a day in coffee and tea. I also relied heavily on foods like free-range eggs and red meat. While saturated fat from healthy sources is still a good option for most people, not so much for me.

After getting my genetics tested I found out my body doesn’t process saturated fats (or eggs) very well. Personally, I’ve felt a lot better focusing more on fish, poultry, and olive oil for my fat sources. I share my personal insights on fats and oils in this short podcast episode here. Everyone is different though and what works for me won’t necessarily work for the next person.

The important thing is to get healthy fats from whole foods and as minimally processed as possible.

The Bottom Line on Low Fat Diets

I think we’ve established how important healthy fats are for body and brain function. We need fats, just the right ones.

As a recap:

  • Saturated fats from healthy meats, coconut, avocado, and nuts are good.
  • Monounsaturated fats are good as long as they’re not heated.
  • Omega-3s are vital to our body, especially because we eat them in improper ratios.

  • Processed vegetable oils, hydrogenated fats, trans fats, and interesterified fats are actually dangerous and should be avoided.

What kinds of fats do you eat? Do you avoid certain ones? Leave a comment and let me know!

  1. American Heart Association. (2021, November 1). Saturated Fat.
  2. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. (2022, April 12). The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between.
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2018, May 18). Trans Fat.
  4. van Rooijen, M. A., & Mensink, R. P. (2020). Palmitic Acid Versus Stearic Acid: Effects of Interesterification and Intakes on Cardiometabolic Risk Markers – A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 12(3), 615.
  5. Mensink, R. P., et al. (2016). The Increasing Use of Interesterified Lipids in the Food Supply and Their Effects on Health Parameters. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)7(4), 719–729.
  6. Siri-Tarino, P. W., et al. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition91(3), 535–546.
  7. Enig, M., & Fallon, S. (2000, January 1). The Skinny on Fats. Weston A. Price Foundation.
Sources
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

Comments

75 responses to “Is Low Fat Healthy?”

  1. Maggie Swain Avatar
    Maggie Swain

    Hi, you mentioned that it’s best to eat the right or good meats…are there only certain meats to eat that don’t eat grains when being raised? Maybe there are ranchers that only feed their cattle grasses until processed? Could you pls elaborate more on the meat eating. I have been making alot of bacon that is uncured and smoked, thank you!

  2. Aijung Avatar

    Hi, I haven’t done a ton of research on this issue, but I did find an article about Whole Foods pulling their krill oil supplements because they were concerned about environmental sustainability. Many sea creatures, including whales, depend on krill for their diets. There are some krill oil companies with sustainable practices in place, but I don’t know how many. Here’s the article: https://omegavia.com/whole-foods-bans-krill-oil/

    Just be sure to do your research before you start using anything – even if it’s good for you, it may not be for the rest of the creatures on our earth. With growing human populations, it’s hard not to take and take from our earth but we have to protect it. Again, I’m still not totally sure about the krill oil issue, but I thought it brought up an important point.

  3. Ali Avatar

    Whilst the current consensus is that LCHF is the way to go, i am concerned that many are veering too far in the opposite direction. Everything seems to have to be extreme these days. Yes, some carbs are bad, but not all are. Yes some fats are bad, but not all are.

    Like many others I jumped on the LCHF bandwagon 8 years ago, but unlike others, I not only lost no weight, but I actually gained over 30lbs on top of my already extremely ample frame. After being contantly told I ‘obviously wasn’t doing it right’ and fiddling about with macros, I am finally coming around to the concept that this exceedingly insulin resistant obese body of mine needs to be both low carb AND low fat.

    Low carb in order to keep my insulin requirements low, and low fat to force my body to burn its own fat. I know eating lean protein can trigger ‘rabbit starvation’, but I may just need to do that for a while in order to shift the weight. Other than that, the only other way I can lose weight is through water-fasting.

    This is only my third complete day of moderate protein plus green salad (x 2 meals) LCLF but I have lost 3lbs.

    Time will tell…..

    1. Nicci Avatar

      Ali,
      Have you heard of Dr. McDougall? He’s had great success helping others with these issues.

  4. John Avatar

    Yes, low fat is healthy if you wish to enjoy having Alzheimer’s. And you wish to help the big food cartel maximize its profits by adding water to you mayo, yogurt, etc. and selling the fats separately. I have always eaten all the fat (any and all kinds) I can get, along with eggs (with yolks) and half to one whole loaf of bread daily, preferably white. (Because it’s convenient for one who is single and hates to cook.) I am 80 and seem OK (so far) so I have never bought into the world of endless passing food fads.

  5. Rachelle Avatar

    Avocados are actually 67% monounsaturated fat and usually categorized in that section of fats. All the research show that avocados have only approximately 15% saturated fat. Perhaps you should update your article. And if you do your research, they are considered a very good heart healthy fat as you seem to mention in your article under the subtitle “saturated fat.”

  6. Nicholas Glover Avatar
    Nicholas Glover

    I’ve read through most of this article, and also through other articles… I’m just curious to know if coconut oil actually works as a fat loss tool? Has anyone tried?

  7. Kathy Avatar

    Cooking with Olive Oil…

    1. Use ordinary olive oil for cooking

    2. Use extra-virgin olive oil for non-heated foods like salad dressing

    Regular olive oil is more heat-stable. Extra-Virgin olive oil is fragile.

  8. Carol Avatar

    What a great article! I recently lost 20 pounds but it all stopped, no matter how much I walked on my treadmill or ate nothing more came off, I was told to increase my fats (good fats) I was wondering what kind of oil to take daily is best for loosing weight. Thanks!

  9. randy francois Avatar
    randy francois

    i understand a lot what you said about grains bieng unhealthy can you elborate about white potatoes is it because it is a starch like wheat and barley rsvp

    1. Susan Avatar

      yes, it’s because it’s starchy, my family and me eat it in moderation

  10. amy Avatar

    Wellness mama have you been able to maintain a medically healthy weight using these health tips you write about?

  11. Hanna Avatar

    I think the starting point of eating better is to understand some nutritional basics (i.e., each type of foodstuffs has different nutritional profile), bare-basic biochemistry (i.e. how the body handles proteins, carbs, and lipids), and cooking (e.g., a spoonful of coconut oil on its own is less enjoyable than curry made with meats/poultry cooked with coconut oil or coffee laced with coconut oil). At the practical level, cook your own meals as much as possible and minimize overindulging processed foods.) Cooking one’s own meals allows one to experiment and thus allows one to zero in on which food combinations are more enjoyable.

    My quick list of how to eat more fats:

    1. Coffee: add some coconut oil or coconut milk.

    2. Mackerel: oil the frying pan then cook a piece of mackerel until it is fully cooked. If it is cooked well enough, you can even eat most of its bones as the bones become crunchy.

    3. Salmon: if you like sashimi (sliced raw fish, ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine), then eat it raw.

    4. Eggs: add salsa into a bowl, followed by tossing in cooked or raw eggs. Mix them together. If you want to make it hotter and spicier, generously sprinkle Tabasco sauce or something similar. If you want to make it creamier, toss in some full-fat sour cream or yoghurt.

  12. Judy Avatar

    Is there any way to get healthy fats in a capsule form? My daughter has an aversion to meat fat, but not butter or a avocado . Not sure how she can get enough fat daily since it is nauseating to her . She is trying to regain health and lose weight. She is mostly grain free.

  13. Nicole Avatar

    So coconut oil, butter and beef fat etc is good for heating up….because it’s more stable at higher temperatures…but what about beef fat which would soak up the toxins itself, particularly if the cow was in a polluted environment or antibiotics, worming treatments, parasite treatments etc…Thanks :)!

    1. Regan Avatar

      We look for organic grass fed tallow. We get ours in bulk from US Wellness meats. Grass fed animals are healthier and if it is organic they do not use antibiotics in the animals. We buy it in 5 gallon buckets and then spoon it into mason jars. Then we freeze it in our deep freeze and pull them out as we need them. 5 gallons lasts us about 6 months and we do the majority of our stove top cooking with it.

  14. Richard Tracy Avatar
    Richard Tracy

    I think there is a typo in the 7th paragraph of this page.
    “access carbohydrates”
    I think you intended to write “Excess carbohydrates”

    Oh, and I found that information about “Phytic Acid” correlating with nutrient blockage fascinating.

    I have been pescetarian-vegan since 2010, then soy and grain free since 2012.
    AND I FEEL GREAT!
    I am a Chef at the University of Guelph, and had a debate with a co-worker (who studies nutrition) about the quality of gluten in the diet. With this new information I aspire to debunk their claims, enlightening them positively.

    I sincerely thank you for the wonderful quality information!

  15. Garfield Avatar

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everybody else encountering issues
    with your website. It appears like some of the text on your content
    are running off the screen. Can somebody else please provide feedback and let
    me know if this is happening to them too?
    This could be a problem with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen
    before. Kudos

    1. Hamy Avatar

      I would check that your font size is not set too high! Typically this is somewhere under the ‘view’ menu and is termed something like “zoom”

  16. Jason Avatar

    Amen to all of that! 🙂 It’s hard for me, because I’m still overweight, to explain to people why I eat fat, because to them it’s unhealthy. Most people don’t even realize that when things say “low-fat”, what they don’t tell you is they’re higher in sugar. It’s crazy!

    When I put together that my body can burn fat, and would actually love to, when I stop giving it sugars to burn (even the good kids), my mind was blown and a shift happened in my diet. It’s not calorie restriction that helps get rid of fat so easily, it’s sugar restriction!

    Thanks for this post. 🙂
    -jason

  17. Jen Avatar

    You mentioned peanut oil in both the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Which is it? Is natural peanut butter (no added oil or sugar) a good protein source?

  18. melody j Avatar

    Hi Katie, love the info you give. Is there another oil you can recommend (aside from coconut oil) that is safe to heat and cook with? I love coconut oil and use it often, but I don’t always want my food to take on its flavor. Thanks!

  19. Freda Avatar

    Thank you SO much for your wonderful information. I am working on stabilizing my hormones, since weight loss after 40 seems such a mystery! Your posts are extremely helpful and I look forward to finally seeing some changes!

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