As a guide, low-fat foods have 30% or fewer calories from fats. That means foods with less than 3g of total fat per 100 calories are low-fat.
How the Low-Fat Diet Works
There is no one definition of a low-fat diet. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that no more than 30% of your daily calories come from fat. This includes both the fat you eat and the fat stored in your body. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that no more than 35% of your daily calories come from fat, with most of those calories coming from unsaturated fats.
Most low-fat diets recommend reducing or eliminating saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and fatty meats. They can also be found in some plant oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and other vegetable oils. They are also found in nuts, seeds, and fish.
There are two main types of low-fat diets: those that limit fat intake and those that focus on eating foods low in fat. Fat-restricted diets usually limit fat to 30% of calories or less. They may also restrict saturated fat and cholesterol. Food-based low-fat diets don’t have a specific fat limit, but they emphasize eating foods that are naturally low in fat, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
- Limit fat intake and oils in cooking.
- Go for lean proteins like skinless chicken and legumes.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit chocolate, ice cream, and full-fat yogurt.
- Avoid dressings and sauces high in fat, like mayonnaise.
- Opt for vegetable oils when cooking, like canola or olive oil.
- Avoid butter and lard, and look for margarine that does not have trans fatty acids.
- Limit nut intake as they are high in fat.
When shopping, being able to read food labels is key to making informed choices. Below is a rough guide for low vs. high-fat foods.
- High-fat foods contain more than 17.5g of fat per 100g.
- Low-fat foods contain 3g of fat or less per 100g.
The Diet Plan
Focus on lean protein from chicken, turkey, and fish. When cooking meat, trim off visible fat to reduce the fat content. For lean proteins, opt for plant-based sources like beans and lentils. A low-fat diet also requires limiting egg consumption.
Dairy and dairy alternatives
Try to use low-fat milk and yogurt. These are best when unsweetened, as the added calories from sugar can offset the lack of fat. For dairy-free people, try reduced-fat soy milk or oat milk. Opt for coconut milk instead of cream for cooking, and choose low-fat cheeses like mozzarella.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables help maintain fullness throughout the day due to their high fiber content, and this can help reduce the feelings of constant hunger that people on a low-fat diet often experience. Fresh produce also provides a range of critical nutrients that promote overall health and wellbeing.
Occasionally, people on a low-fat diet rely on carbohydrates to maintain fullness. Often, these foods are higher in calories and can lead to weight gain. To avoid this, opt for whole-grain varieties, and fill up on fruits and vegetables instead of relying on unrefined carbohydrates.
Healthy fats like omega-3 from fish (and certain types of algae) are essential for overall health. Cutting out unhealthy fats is most important in the low-fat diet, whereas regulating amounts of good fats — including polyunsaturated fats — can have many health benefits.
Occasionally, low-fat options are considered specialty foods priced higher than regular foods. By abstaining from expensive items like butter and cream, there is room to save money. Introducing more fresh produce and buying local can also help to cut costs.
Dos and Don’ts
- Plan meals and prep in advance. This will make the low-fat diet easier daily.
- Replace fats with fruit and vegetables. Aim for at least five servings per day.
- Eat complex (whole-grain) carbohydrates to maintain fullness with fewer calories.
- Check that low-fat options do not contain large amounts of sugar.
- Increase water intake to maintain fullness and keep energy levels up.
- Accompany healthy eating with regular exercise.
- Cut out dietary fat entirely. Some key healthy fats are essential for brain and general health.
- Replace saturated fats with high sugar, low-fat options. Sugar is high in calories and will inhibit weight loss.
- Forget that no diet will be sustainable unless coupled with good hydration and a regular exercise routine.
- Be deterred by early setbacks. It is normal to feel under the weather for a few days while your body adjusts to a new diet.
Sample Diet Plan
Breakfast: Whole-grain cinnamon oatmeal made with water or plant milk. Add berries for added vitamin C and a boost of antioxidants.
Lunch: Cherry tomato, tofu, and broccoli salad with plenty of dark leafy greens. Add lemon-vinegar dressing for low-fat flavor.
Dinner: Salmon and wilted spinach with a side of steamed broccoli.
Health Benefits and Drawbacks
- Can aid weight loss and help keep it off
- Leads to other healthy habits
- Eating more vegetables will improve overall nutrition
- Improves heart health and reduces the risk of heart disease
- Can lower blood pressure
Some people can miss essential nutrients by abstaining from healthy polyunsaturated fats on a low-fat diet. This can lead to many health problems, as certain fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for brain and heart health and can only be obtained through dietary choices.
Some people report feeling ill or uncomfortable starting a low-fat diet. While these symptoms are usually mild and do not persist, the initial adjustment period can cause some people to prematurely give up on a diet.
The Bottom Line: Is the Low-Fat Diet a Healthy Way to Lose Weight?
A low-fat diet can improve health and help shed excess pounds. However, it can cause some health problems if not well-planned.
As with any diet, it is essential to be well-informed. Otherwise, missing critical nutrients like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be easy.
Essentially, it is always good to reduce saturated fats and trans fats as much as possible. It is not ideal, however, to cut your fat intake entirely.
Coupling a low-fat diet with regular exercise and plenty of water is a positive way to help with long-term weight loss and management.