Home Food 101 It’s Always Been A Big Fat Lie: Why Low-Fat And Fat-Free Are Bad Ideas

It’s Always Been A Big Fat Lie: Why Low-Fat And Fat-Free Are Bad Ideas

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Credit: avlxyz

I’m always confused by when I get e-mails or messages on the BGG2WL FB page that ask me questions about the fact that my recipes contain fat. I’m confused – are we supposed to be avoiding fat or something?

Oh, so you mean that the fact that after almost 30 years of “low-fat/fat free” products, the country is even more overweight now than it was before… that fact didn’t teach y’all that the “low fat/no-fat” philosophy isn’t the way to go?


I abandoned conventional wisdom on fat a long time ago. It just… doesn’t make sense to me.

If I think about what our ancestors ate, it included fruits, vegetables, and animal flesh and byproducts. It’s one thing to sensibly monitor your intake of animal flesh (read: portion control), but to cut it out entirely after sustaining on it for centuries?

No. You’ll take my fat from me when you pry it from my bony little fingers.

A little while back, Civil Eats posted the following:

This past December, the Los Angeles Times reported that excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, are responsible for America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. One of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.” Another expert, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “Fat is not the problem.”

[…]These are clear indications that an important tipping point in the mainstream understanding of fat and nutrition is underway. But it did take some time. Back in 2002, Gary Taubes wrote about it in the New York Times magazine, laying out a fine deconstruction of the low-fat premise presented to the American people. He pointed out that the science behind this recommendation was never proven and was actually based on “a leap of faith”.

I interrupt this reading to just excerpt what Civil Eats is referring to in this section regarding Taubes’ article, because I’m painfully familiar with it and its’ length. (It’s long… lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnng.)

In the intervening years, the N.I.H. spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link. A sixth, however, costing well over $100 million alone, concluded that reducing cholesterol by drug therapy could prevent heart disease. The N.I.H. administrators then made a leap of faith. Basil Rifkind, who oversaw the relevant trials for the N.I.H., described their logic this way: they had failed to demonstrate at great expense that eating less fat had any health benefits. But if a cholesterol-lowering drug could prevent heart attacks, then a low-fat, cholesterol-lowering diet should do the same. ”It’s an imperfect world,” Rifkind told me. ”The data that would be definitive is ungettable, so you do your best with what is available.” [source – page 5 if the link doesn’t take you directly to it]

But…. onward, we go:

In 2001, Dr. Hu, writing in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, noted, “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health problems.” Or, as Michael Pollan pithily puts it in his In Defense of Food, “The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and the evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.”

This brings up several important issues in the fat debate. It is still widely held that what matters are the types of fat we consume. Even in Shulman’s article on her fat re-education, there are contradictions—it’s clear she just can’t get her head around the idea that saturated fats may indeed be healthy. She writes, “Saturated fat—the kind found in animals and dairy products, as well as in any hydrogenated fat—is also regarded as a less healthy fat because it raises L.D.L cholesterol, or ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, and this kind of cholesterol is related to heart disease. But even saturated fat is not so bad compared to refined carbohydrates, the doctors say, and if we were to eliminate it from our diet we would also be eliminating many foods that are also rich in healthy fats, like fish, whose omega-3 fatty acids are vital to good health.”

But as Pollan points out, the idea that saturated fats are a less healthy fat just isn’t true, as the picture is fairly complex. Indeed, most foods are composed of a many different types of fats. For example, half the fat found in beef is unsaturated and most of that fat is the same monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. Lard is 60 percent unsaturated and most of the fat in chicken fat is unsaturated as well, according to Taubes 2008 book Good Calories, Bad Calories.  In his New York Times article he writes, “Even saturated fats–AKA, the bad fats—are not nearly as deleterious as you would think. True, they will elevate your bad cholesterol, but they will also elevate your good cholesterol. In other words, it’s a virtual wash.” Taubes continues, “Foods considered more or less deadly under the low-fat dogma turn out to be comparatively benign if you actually look at their fat content. More than two-thirds of the fat in a porterhouse steak, for instance, will definitively improve your cholesterol profile (at least in comparison with the baked potato next to it); it’s true that the remainder will raise your L.D.L., the bad stuff, but it will also boost your H.D.L. The same is true for lard. If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”


Now, I’ve read Taubes’ article from 2002, I own Good Calories, Bad Calories… but most importantly, I’ve lived this stuff. My fats come from sources found in nature, not trans-fats or interesterified fats. My avocadoes, my cashews, creams and cheeses provide me with fat, and the occasional fish or poultry dish doesn’t hurt me, either. I balance my daily intake to the point where if I want a fat-heavy dish for dinner, I prepare for it in advance – I eat light on the fat during the day.

As the saying has always gone, when nature creates the poison, it pairs it with the antidote. All I’m gonna say is… consider this another reason to ditch the processed foods and embrace clean, well-grown foods. If your sources of fat are natural, the only thing you have to worry about is caloric intake throughout your day. Otherwise? No, fat doesn’t deserve the evisceration it has received over the past 20-30 years.

And certainly, let’s not forget the problem that “avoiding fat” actually led us to in the first place:

There are quite a few things worth noting, here. For starters, the fat-free version of the cream cheese is true to its label – it has reduced the fat content of the cheese down to nothing. There’s also 70 calories less in the fat-free version than there is in there regular. Well, I’ll be. [insert applause]

But look at the number of ingredients in the fat free cheese in comparison to the regular version. Better yet, how many of those ingredients are actual real food items and not the result of a chemistry experiment?

Cheese is made from milk, and let’s face it. Milk is supposed to be fattening. Let me repeat that. Milk is supposed to be fattening. The reason mammals produce milk (cows, goats and YES, humans) is to nourish their young and help them grow. It fattens them up. So needless to say, a cheese made from the milk of a mammal is going to have some fat in it. In order to create a cheese with the same consistency as regular cheese but remove the fat? A manufacturer has to add all those chemicals to it. Just to prevent the cheese from doing what it, technically, is supposed to do.

Look at how much sugar is in the regular version in comparison to the fat-free version. The natural “mmmm” that comes from the fat in cream cheese is now gone, so the manufacturer has to add it back by adding excess sugar. Interesting.

Check out how much sodium is in each version. Again, adding a little more salt to help the cheese get back that “mmmm” feeling it once had. I mean, I’m just sayin’. It’s something to think about.

I’d also like to compare the contents of the ingredients lists. In the regular version of cream cheese, it’s straight-forward: “Milk, cream, cheese culture, salt, carob bean, guar gum (a thickener, similar to cornstarch).” In the fat-free version? There’s… tragedy. And shame. And two “kinds” of salt (salt and sodium tripolyphosphate, a preservative derived from triphosphoric acid.) And twelve more ingredients than you can find in the regular version.

It takes a manufacturer 18 ingredients (many of whom not found in nature) to present you a cream cheese with the same taste and as close to that “mmm” feeling as possible. Sure, it has twice as much sugar and almost 60% more salt, but hey – at least you get fewer calories.

Why does this matter? It matters because in the quest for hunting for “fat free,” we’ve neglected the primary purpose of food – nourishing our bodies. If you change the structure of the milk used – from regular to skim – then you change the nutrients available. You change what the dish can do for you. You change its ability to nourish you and fill you up. You’re sticking more chemicals in your body.

I’m just sayin’. Stop avoiding the fat. Your body actually needs it.

That’s not a green light to go all “Paula Deen” on me every day, but if you decide to drop some nice butter and lemon juice on your broccoli? I won’t be mad atcha.

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JoAnna March 29, 2011 - 11:47 AM

I made a hollandaise sauce in my blender, took photos and showed them and the recipe online to a few friends. I had just bought some asparagus and artichokes and thought to visit my inner Julia Child. From the comments I received, you would’ve thought I was baking Meth in my kitchen!
“How can you use that many egg yolks?
“That’s too much butter!”
“You were doing so well on your diet. Now you’ll have to start over…”
“Why couldn’t you use a butter substitute and egg whites?”

Hollandaise is a classic french sauce, made to be served with Spring vegetables. And it’s like mayonaise, a dab will do ‘ya. I tell my friends that my blood numbers have never been better since I dumped all that artificial stuff in the garbage. I’m still losing weight, and my doctor loves my slow but consistent progress. I refuse to go backwards into consuming vast quantities of fat-free “frakenfoods” to feel satisfied.

Remember “Olean Potato Chips” made with some lab experiment oil that could not be absorbed by the body? I ate 1 bag, had gas for 3 days and the runs. Food is supposed to be eaten to nourish our bodies, and enjoyed with friends and family. Not to make us lab rats!

CJM March 30, 2011 - 9:08 AM

A little bit really will do you. Please tell said friends that you’re not drinking cups of hollandaise for breakfast every morning, or even eating eggs benedict every weekend. You just found some excellent produce and wanted to set off the flavor a bit. BTW I have a lazy day way to do this that has the same effect and uses whole foods (no butter substitute etc). Let me know if you want me to share.

JoAnna March 30, 2011 - 4:20 PM

I LOVE easy/lazy recipes! Share on!

Ruby A March 29, 2011 - 12:05 PM

Brainwashing really is a hell of a drug.

I read the Atkins Diet and ‘Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salad’ and kept them as reference texts, and also find Women’s Health to be quite useful on that front, as they advocate nuts, oils and naturally fatty foods (albeit to market their diet, but at least the cold hard info stands on its own). I use a little of my favourite oils for cooking and flavour, and add chopped nuts or flaxseed to my yoghurt and smoothies. It took me a while to get my head round it, but I know now that refined carbs are not my friend when it comes to weight loss.

As you may or may not know, I’m following the WeightWatchers ProPoints system. The points for low-fat spread and full-fat spread for baking worked out the same, gram for gram. Guess which one tastes nicer and goes down a treat on steamed veg or brown toast. I generally give cheese the body swerve anyway, but when I do have it, it’s full-fat all the way. Ice cream? I’ll take Haagen-Dazs over Skinny Cow. The only exceptions I’ll make are for semi-skimmed milk and FAGE 0% Greek yoghurt, as neither have 786 extra ingredients in it to compensate for it being fat-free. Believe me, I went through those labels in the supermarket, checked them, and there’s a surprising amount of sugar in even plain fat-free dairy products. *le sigh*

Kait March 29, 2011 - 2:10 PM


As a vegetarian I take in “a lot” of fat…from seeds, nuts, nut butters, tofu, soy milk, etc. Since giving up meat (Why? I could care less about the taste…gimme salad over filet ANY day!), my health has improved significantly DESPITE increasing my daily fat intake. I’ve had health praciticioners and professors tell me that it is too much but my health speaks for itself. 🙂

DaniBel March 29, 2011 - 4:36 PM

I was on the South Beach Diet for a while. I did very well on it too, because the thing about low-carb diets is that they remove/limit refined sugars and flours which are the most quickly absorbed by the digestive system. Fats are the last to digest and they are what make you feel full and stave off hunger and cravings.

If I have low fat cereal and milk for breakfast, I’m either going to eat way more than the recommended portion or I’m going to be hungry again in two hours or less. If I have scrambled eggs cooked in butter and ham or bacon, I’m satisfied for much longer, not to mention there’s no immediate shock of sugar to make me jumpy and then send me crashing.

It’s my experience that fat intake helps me to eat less. Now, I’m not eating a stick of butter every day. I use olive oil mostly, coconut oil on occasion, butter sparingly, and peanut oil when I bother to deep fry and I don’t feel remotely guilty about it. I have a friend, though, who can’t wrap her mind around having fat in anything. She’s always hungry, too, and always snacking on her “low fat” treats and she’s not reaching her fitness goals.

CJM March 30, 2011 - 9:18 AM

I will not call myself a proponent of fat, I’m just what you could call a user of foods the way they grew or came off/out of the animal (with the exception of full fat milk, reminds me of drinking cream). There’s a few reasons for this. It tastes better and generally cooks better. Fat free cheese doesn’t melt because the thing that makes cheese melt is the fat. Also, there may be a satiety effect of certain fats (check out the ingredients on slim shots…intended to signal fullness). Think about what happens when you add a half serving of peanut butter to anything. You stay full for hours. And finally, a little bit really will do you. I’ll take spreading a bit of ripe avocado on a sandwich any day over some fat free miracle whip. Yes, there is more fat but I can guarantee you I’ll stay full longer and my sandwich will taste better.

BlackBetty March 31, 2011 - 2:50 PM

Did anyone else notice the bottom of the Fat Free version that says “For cooking use regular Kroger cream cheese”? Hmmmm indeed!

tisha May 2, 2011 - 6:16 PM

This? Right here? Is why I love you: “In the fat-free version? There’s… tragedy. And shame.”

iHollered! LMBO!

You educated me on this a while back. It’s why I shake my head at the fat-free joints and proceed to the full fat– with moderation. 🙂

Johnnie May 2, 2011 - 8:05 PM

I know I’m a little late in commenting but most of that fat free stuff is NASTAY!

Latoya June 19, 2011 - 5:59 PM

This was very informative! Never looked at fat in this manner. Thanks for the breakdown.

Fitempress August 15, 2011 - 12:33 PM

Well Well Well I was one individual that was sucked into this fat free hype and you’ve opened my eyes thank you!!!

Amma October 24, 2011 - 2:04 PM

Wow Erika, I have been enlightened. I am currently changing my diet, eating more healthier and cleaner foodstyle, or so I thought. I have always believed low fat foods to be more beneficial but looking at the comparrison you presented was maaad!? I will pay close attention to the ingredients etc and not necessarily reach for these chemically produced ‘fake’ foods! What an eye opener! I feel like i’ve been lied to but i suppose the info has always been there.

Aria Loveland January 13, 2012 - 12:10 PM

In a personal training course, I learned that the 20-35% of a healthy person’s diet should be fats. Saturated fats should be kept below 7%. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats raise your HDL(good)cholesterol and lower your LDL(bad)cholesterol. These healthy fats are found in fish, flaxseed, hempseed, nuts and olive oil among other foods.

These fats also help the body absorb vitamins A,D,E and K. Fat is also a vital source of energy for the body. 1 gram of fat =9 calories of energy!

Theresa Fowler June 3, 2013 - 4:16 PM

Absolutely brilliant post! I’ve been banging on to people for years about the real reasons why low/no fat options are worse for you and contain more sugar, including synthetic sugars. Having lost almost 100lbs myself after being told it was all a lie, I find it difficult that people still believe the marketing hype rather than looking to what nature provided for us in the first place. I even wrote a book about it (www.feellikeshit.co.uk). My fave fats are coconut oil, avocados, raw cheeses and raw butter. Yum! Oh, and raw almond butter, which has the added bonus of satisfying any cravings for sugar. Result.
Keep up the great work!

Nat Carter February 17, 2015 - 11:51 PM

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Butter is KING….eat all the good fat

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