For decades, we were told to eat low-fat everything: fat-free yogurt, skim milk, low-fat salad dressings, and even reduced-fat crackers.
It all started in the 1940s, when doctors began recommending low-fat diets for high-risk cardiac patients after a number of studies identified connections between a high-fat diet and high cholesterol. Throughout the next few decades, though, the low-fat diet recommendation spread far beyond heart patients. By the ’80s the low-fat trend had saturated the entire population—the government, doctors, food companies, and media pushed low-fat diets with the intention of preventing diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Times are a-changin’, though, as recent research—and the current sad state of health in the U.S.—calls into question whether going ‘low-fat’ was ever a good idea. Now, many nutrition experts are recommending people opt for full-fat foods, instead. (Yes, even whole milk.)
Confused? Maybe even a little resistant to the idea of buying full-fat yogurt, salad dressing, and more? You’re not alone! Here’s everything you need to know about why low-fat is ‘out’ and full-fat is ‘in’—and how to embrace the change in a healthy way.
The Problem With Low-Fat Everything
Millions of Americans adopted the low-fat way of life believing it would protect their health and keep them from gaining weight—but things didn’t quite pan out that way.
For starters, swearing off fat led many people to over-eat carbs and sugar. It’s easy to understand why: Without fat (which keeps us feeling satiated), people felt hungry soon after eating. Since fat was off the table, though, they turned to carbs and sugar, explains Rissetto. To make matters worse, people thought that a ‘low-fat’ or ‘reduced-fat’ label meant they could double or triple their portion sizes—which upped their total calorie consumption. In 1971, just 14 percent of Americans were considered obese—but by 2007 that number had more than doubled, reaching 34 percent.
Another major issue: When companies cut down on the fat in their foods (particularly processed foods) to satisfy the demand for low-fat foods, they typically replaced it with sugar to make up for lost flavor, according to Vanessa Rissetto, R.D. One of many examples: JIF’s reduced-fat peanut butter contains more sugar than its original counterpart, listing corn syrup solids and sugar as its second and third ingredients.
All this sugar not only contributed to expanding waistlines, but to a number of other concerning health trends. We now know that a diet high in sugar can increase risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In fact, people who consume 25 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar may be twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limit added sugar to less than 10 percent of their total calories. And while just over two percent of the population had diabetes in 1975, nearly 10 percent of Americans had it in 2012.
Beyond their role in weight gain, diabetes, and heart health issues, diets high in low-fat foods have been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease, according to a study published in Neurology.
The ‘Full-Fat’ Revolution
After decades of declining health nationwide, research has recently started to emphasize the role of fat in our diets and long-term health—and for good reason. Fat provides us with energy, helps us absorb certain nutrients, builds important cell structures, helps blood clot, and manages inflammation. Unsaturated fats, in particular, have been shown to protect heart health—while some research has connected consumption of full-fat dairy (which is higher in saturated fat) with a healthier body weight.
As of 2015, the federal government’s dietary guidelines reversed previous advice about restricting how much of our daily calories come from fat—though they do still advise we limit saturated fat. Meanwhile, more and more nutritionists and health experts now promote the importance of eating ample healthy fats, with many recommending that fats account for between 20 and 25 percent of our daily calories.
How To Ditch ‘Low-Fat’ For Good
To get the most out of the fat in your diet, there are a few guidelines nutrition experts want you to keep in mind.
First, be picky about where your fat comes from. Limit the fat you consume from processed foods (like potato chips) as much as possible, and focus on eating fat from healthy sources like nuts, avocados, salmon, and olive oil, says Rissetto.
Ditch reduced-fat (and higher-sugar) kitchen staples like salad dressings, mayonnaise, and peanut butter for their full-fat versions. Same goes for cheese. And if you prefer the taste of full-fat milk and yogurt to the taste of the fat-free stuff, swap those back in, too, says Keri Gans, R.D.N. and author of The Small Change Diet. Plus—no more egg whites! Go ahead and enjoy full eggs, yolks and all.
Just be mindful of proper serving sizes, since these full-fat foods are a little higher in calories than their fat-free counterparts. For example, a serving of fat-free plain Greek yogurt is 100 calories, while a serving of full-fat plain Greek yogurt is 190. The additional calories from fat come with a major benefit, though: They’ll help keep you feeling full for longer!
That’s not to say you need to shun the low-fat versions of whole foods for life, though. Your top priorities are to avoid low-fat packaged foods, highly-processed foods, and added sugar, and to follow proper serving sizes in order to avoid adding extra sugar, carbs, and calories to your meals, Rissetto says. So, if you like skim milk here and there, go for it.