Low-fat diets are frequently recommended for individuals looking to lose weight or improve their health in other areas. However, it’s important for health-conscious individuals to understand how to properly implement a low-fat diet. Attempting to eliminate all dietary fats, or replacing fats with foods that are high in sugar, can have unintended negative health consequences.

First, let’s take a look at some pervasive low-fat diet myths that can make it difficult for people to choose the right foods.

Myth #1: All fats are unhealthy

Conventional nutritional doctrine has told us for decades that fats should be avoided. However, not only are some fats healthy for us, they are actually necessary for proper functions throughout the body. Healthy fats help build cell membranes, reduce inflammation, and aid in muscle movement. Omega-3 fatty acids — found in some fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and egg yolks — help protect against heart disease and reduce blood pressure. Low levels of omega-3s can cause fatigue, heart problems, mood swings, depression, memory problems, and dry skin.

Other types of fat — known as monounsaturated fat — can help with weight loss, promote brain health, help fight depression, improve skin health, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce cancer risk, and balance hormones. Sources of monounsaturated fat include olives, olive oil, avocados, almonds, cashews, and eggs.

Myth #2: Fat makes you gain weight

It may sound counter-intuitive, but dietary fat (the fat you eat), isn’t stored in the body as fat. Fat is a part of every cell in your body (not just fat cells) and is necessary for normal cellular function and operation. Fat is required to absorb certain nutrients, helps the body properly use protein, and provides the body with a source of consistent, sustained energy that doesn’t spike blood sugar.

When you eat fat, it doesn’t trigger insulin the way carbohydrates do, and insulin is the hormone that triggers fat storage in the body. Insulin first stores excess glucose as glycogen (energy stored in the liver and muscles), and then once glycogen stores are full, the excess glucose is stored as fat.

That means most people concerned about their weight would do well to consume healthy sources of fat in every meal, watch their carbohydrate consumption, and avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and sugar.

Myth #3: Fat-free foods are healthier

It’s second nature for many of us to reach for reduced-fat or fat-free versions of our favorite foods, because they appear to be healthier. But this is often a mistake. For starters, fat helps slow down the blood sugar spike and the resulting surge in insulin when we eat something sweet. Fat also triggers satiety, meaning it helps you feel full. So if you try to remove it from your diet completely, you may just end up eating more overall, and more sugar in particular. And low-fat or fat-free foods typically have a lot of added ingredients, including added sugar, to make up for the flavor that’s lost when the fat is removed.

In many cases, you are better off choosing the full-fat version because it likely contains less sugar, and you will need less of it to feel full.

When is a low-fat diet recommended?

A low-fat diet is not right for everyone. For some people, a low-fat diet may be recommended due to the way their bodies process food and store energy. People with a genetic variant in the PPAR genes are more sensitive to dietary fat. These genes control the processes related to energy metabolism and energy storage, and also also involved in the growth of fat tissue. Carriers of a certain PPARG variant are more likely to gain weight on a high-fat diet, and should limit their intake of saturated fat, which is found in red meat and other animal products.

Individuals on a low-fat diet, however, should still obtain 20-25 percent of their total daily calories from fat, and should focus on sources of unsaturated fats such as olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

What can you eat on a low-fat diet?

A low-fat diet should include a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in as many different colors as possible. Include plant foods, protein, and healthy fats in every meal. Leafy green vegetables are optimal. You may consume whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, and oats. Avoid processed and refined grains.

For protein, consume legumes, such as beans, prepared without added fat. Other sources of protein can include fish, poultry, and pork. Limit consumption of red meat, and remove all visible fat and skin from meat, fish, and poultry. Avoid frying meat, and instead prepare it by baking, broiling, steaming, or poaching. Limit eggs to four per week. Choose dairy products without added sugar and avoid cheese.

Minimize or avoid added sugars, especially if you are trying to lose weight or control blood sugar levels.

A final note: Watch out for packaged foods that make health claims based on their fat content. The more health claims a product makes, the less healthy it usually is. Instead of cookies and baked goods, try eating fresh fruit for dessert, or dark chocolate, which contains beneficial polyphenols that may reduce blood pressure and inflammation.

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