Is Fat-Free is Failing You?

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was nineteen, and out of poverty I got into the habit of raiding my mother’s pantry every time I went over for a visit. My mom is far from those extreme couponers with storage units packed full of free cans of Spam, but she can appreciate a good sale. Back in the day, I would “shop” her over-stock, always leaving with a purse full of goodies. Out of habit, I still check that pantry every now and again, and it’s dramatically different than my own.

You see, my mom entered the diet stage of her life (late teens) in the 80’s. At that time the government had endorsed a fat free diet, calling for a reduction in fatty meats due to a nationwide rise in cholesterol. My mom followed suit, trading butter for margarine, eggs for toast, and seeking out fat free dairy products. To this day, my mother has a hard time giving up her low fat lifestyle. I personally believe this is because the diet was endorsed during her nutrition formative years, and has been burned into her brain. Her choices are made out of habit and not due to any particular success with a low fat diet. That being said, her pantry content is heavy on the low fat granola bars, crackers and cereal. (A stark difference to my pork rinds, nuts and coconut oil.)

After the government endorsement the years progressed and we did not see the health benefits that low fat had promised. Obesity and diabetes numbers skyrocketed. At first we didn’t want to accept the truth, holding on to the thought that eating fat would increase body fat. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It has been proven that dietary fat is not a primary determinant of body fat, and lack of healthy fats are detrimental to metabolism.

Almost every function in your body requires fat. Dietary fats function as the building blocks of the body. On a cellular level they feed mitochondria (the powerhouse of a cell), strengthen membranes and help healthy gene expression. They carry essential vitamins (A, D, E and K) and aid in growth, development, healing, production of nails and hair, and are required for brain health. They are needed to lubricate the digestive system, protect vital organs, and increase heart health. Fats create healthier hormones, which in turn can balance mood, fertility and food cravings. They have been shown to decrease chances of miscarraige, learning and vision problems, and impaired kidney function. There are a ton of current studies showing improvement of osteoporosis, age – related memory loss, cognitive decline, macular degeneration, and multiple sclerosis. No wonder so many people are going Keto!

When fat is removed from your diet, it’s usually replaced with processed carbohydrates. Sugar and starch is used to compensate for the lack of taste and texture in fat free food. This is why the country saw a rise in type two diabetes during the fat free craze. (And almost no change in bad cholesterol as had been promised.) In turn, insulin resistance can stimulate hunger and cause fat storage- specifically holding on to belly fat.

Over the years I tried just about every diet out there. I spent a lot of time on Weight Watchers, which showed temporary progress in 2009 when I lost 50 pounds (only to end up regaining 103 pounds,) The most appealing aspect for WW was the theory that nothing is “off limits” as long as it fit into my daily point allowance. I found myself filling up on 100 calorie packs of cookies because they were less points than a handful of nuts or a serving of meat. This is why my regain was NOT surprising to my nutritionist years later. She explained that my initial loss was my body responding to a calorie deficit, but as my metabolism adjusted to my new caloric quantity I started to regain due to caloric quality. At some point the carbs in my “lite” bread and low calorie baked goods started to stick. From then on weight loss was super frustrating again. I just couldn’t lose the weight, partially due to still eating processed low fat/fat free items instead of whole foods.

I shudder to remember the years I spent eating “zero calorie spray butter” and margarine to avoid fat. I required a TON of it to even get a similar taste to real butter, and often found myself adding cheese and salt when I was still disappointed in the taste. Both are basically just a spoonful of chemicals, whereas butter is  naturally occurring from milk that is over churned. There is zero nutritional value in those items. They do not taste like, cook like or nourish like natural oils or butter. This also makes them less satisfying, increasing the chances you’ll need to add empty carbs like sugar, flour, or thickeners and often results in further consumption/snacking while seeking out something to “hit the spot.”

Fat has a bad reputation. As I said before, dietary fat is not a major contributor to body fat (unlike carbohydrates.) The trick is to eat natural fat that comes from seeds, nuts and protein. Generally if it comes from nature it’s a good fat, and if it’s processed you should avoid the product. Food labels can be deceiving, so your best bet is always to compare the nutrition facts. Remember that nothing in nutrition is ever ‘law,’ and there are small exceptions to everything. Eat whole foods like produce, meat and legumes. Use common sense. When in doubt consult a reliable information source, like your primary care provider or a nutritionist. 

Stay healthy. Stay kind.

Kate and the Kids

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a licensed nutritionist- but I have done a lot of research for this post. I speak only from my own experiences and success. My opinion is mine alone, not a representation of any specific medical community.