What Is the Low-Fat Diet?

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At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

A low-fat diet is an eating plan that substantially limits the amount of dietary fat consumed, regardless of the type of fat. Those who follow the eating plan may be seeking weight loss, weight maintenance, or other outcomes like improved heart health.

Low-fat diets were first considered as an approach to combat heart disease in the 1940s when research studies began showing a link between high-fat diets and high cholesterol levels. By the 1960s, the diet was promoted not just for high-risk heart patients but as a healthy eating plan for everyone. And by the 1980s, the diet became the predominant approach to eating. It was promoted by physicians, the federal government, the food industry, and the popular health media.

Foods included in a low-fat diet may be naturally low in fat or fat-free, like fruits and vegetables. The diet may also include processed foods that are manufactured to contain less fat than their traditional counterparts, like low-fat cookies or low-fat ice cream.

There is no single specific way to follow a low-fat diet. Many popular and commercial diet plans are low-fat diets but use different approaches to reduce fat intake. For example, some diets use fat-free meal replacement shakes or low-fat frozen meals. Others encourage cooking and preparing meals without fats like butter or cooking oils. Low-fat diets can be healthy, but some low-fat diets reduce or eliminate foods that provide important nutrients, enjoyment, and satiety.

What Experts Say

"Low-fat diets have been effective in promoting weight loss when calories are restricted. However, very low-fat diets can create vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In general, it's best to consume a more balanced diet that includes mono- and polyunsaturated fats for overall health and longevity."


—Heather Black, CPT, Nutrition Coach

What Can You Eat?

On a low-fat diet, you choose foods based on fat content. Foods that are low in fat are often foods that are also low in calories, but not always. In many processed foods, fat is replaced by starch, sugar, or other ingredients that still contribute calories.

For example, some low-fat salad dressings replace oil with sugar or thickeners that reduce the fat content but increase sugar and sometimes calorie content. Some fat-free coffee creamers contain oil just like their full counterparts, but the fat contained in a single serving is minimal enough that the food is allowed to be labeled as fat-free.

Natural low-fat or fat-free foods in their whole form (that is, not heavily processed) are more likely to be more nutrient-dense. For example, many fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat. If weight loss is your goal, these foods help you feel full without feeling like you’re on a diet.

In general, low-fat diets limit your fat intake to 30% or less of your total daily calorie intake. Current dietary guidelines suggest that Americans aged 19 and older consume 20% to 35% of calories from fat. The USDA also suggests that saturated fat intake should be limited to less than 10% of total calories.

Some popular low-fat diets, however, reduce fat intake more substantially. The Ornish diet, for example, recommends consuming no more than 10% of your calories from fat and suggests that those calories should only come from "fat that occurs naturally in grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, legumes, soy foods—and small amounts of nuts & seeds."

What You Need to Know

To follow a low-fat diet plan, you choose foods that contain less fat or consume smaller portions of fatty foods. Usually, foods are not explicitly forbidden, but to stay compliant with the plan, you might have to eat a smaller-than-normal portion of foods that are higher in fat. For instance, chocolate lovers can still consume their favorite food, but they only consume an amount that keeps them within their fat intake goals.

Calculate Your Fat Intake

Low-fat diets usually require you to count macronutrients and/or calories. So, if your goal is to stay under 30% of daily calories from fat, you'll need to calculate your total calorie intake and make sure that your fat grams don't contribute more than 30%.

Total Grams of Fat Per Day = (Total Calories Per Day x 0.3) / 9 Calories Per Gram of Fat

  • For example, if you consume 2000 calories per day, 600 calories can come from fat on a low-fat diet. Since each gram of fat contains 9 calories, you would be able to consume about 66.7 grams of fat per day.
  • Those consuming 1800 calories per day would be able to consume 540 calories from fat, or 60 grams.
  • Those consuming 1500 calories per day could consume 450 calories from fat or 50 grams of fat.

Read Labels and Count Grams

If you are new to counting calories or counting macros, you may find that using a smartphone app is helpful. Apps like MyFitnessPal or LoseIt! have databases of thousands of food items. You can either scan a product barcode or manually input a specific portion of food to instantly see how many calories and fat grams the food provides.

You can also use a simple food journal to keep track of your fat and nutrition intake. Use the nutrition facts label on the foods you consume (or USDA data) to calculate your fat intake. You'll see that fat is the first listing under calories on the label. In addition to total fat grams, the label is also likely to provide information about saturated fat grams and trans fat grams.

Learn About Different Types of Fat

Most low-fat diets do not make a distinction between different types of fat. If you want to follow a healthy variation of a low-fat diet, you'll want to understand the different types and choose those fatty foods that provide health benefits—specifically monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Since low-fat diets first became popular, scientists and nutrition experts have learned more about fat and its effects on the body. Monounsaturated fats (found in olives, nuts, and avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (found in fatty fish, walnuts, and seeds) are considered "good fats" because they provide important nutrients and can help reduce cholesterol levels in your blood, lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke.

On the other hand, saturated fat and trans fats (which are being eliminated from processed foods) are known to have negative effects on heart health. According to the American Heart Association, eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Even though the USDA recommends limiting saturated fat to 10% or less of daily calories, the AHA suggests that you limit your saturated fat intake to 5% to 6% of total calories.

What to Eat
  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Low-fat dairy products

  • Grains, legumes, pulses

  • Lean protein, such as chicken or fish

  • Low fat treats and sweets

What to Limit or Avoid
  • Cheese, butter, cream, and other full-fat dairy products

  • High fat sweets and treats such as candy and cookies

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Avocado and olives

  • Fatty meats

  • Oils

Foods to Eat

Fruits and Vegetables

These foods are usually low in fat, except for avocado and olives (which are technically fruits). In order to get a variety of healthy nutrients on a low-fat diet, it is generally recommended that you consume fruits and vegetables in all colors of the rainbow.

Fruits and vegetables supply vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber, which is linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Vitamins and minerals are sources of phytochemicals that function as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, and anti-inflammatory agents.

Low-Fat Dairy

Most full-fat dairy products have a lower fat counterpart. For instance, foods like low-fat or fat-free Greek yogurt, skim milk, and certain low-fat cheeses provide calcium and protein.

For instance, the NIH National Heart Lung and Blood Institute recommends that you choose part-skim milk, low-moisture mozzarella cheese instead of whole milk mozzarella and low-fat (1%), reduced-fat (2%), or fat-free (skim) milk instead of full-fat milk.

Grains, Legumes, Pulses

Grains, especially whole grains, legumes (beans), and pulses (lentils and peas), provide carbohydrates for energy and are a good source of protein for those on a low-fat diet. Meat intake may be reduced on this eating plan, so getting protein from other sources is important.

Lean Protein

Many protein sources are low in fat, such as skinless chicken breasts, white fish like cod or halibut, turkey, and even some cuts of beef (such as flank steak or filet mignon in smaller portions).

Low-Fat Sweets

There are many types of low-fat and fat-free sweets available, but it's important to note that they are likely to be high in sugar. This includes frozen treats like sherbet or sorbet and certain types of candy like licorice or hard candy. Some brands, like Snackwell, make lower fat baked goods. While these foods are allowed on a low-fat diet, they don't contribute substantial vitamins or minerals and tend to be high in sugar.

Foods to Avoid or Limit

Full-Fat Dairy Products

Cheese, butter, cream, and other high-fat dairy products, like full-fat yogurt, are generally not included in a low-fat diet. Not only do these foods contribute substantial fat grams, but lower-fat alternatives are usually easy to find.

High-Fat Sweets

Popular baked treats like cakes, pies, cupcakes, muffins are usually made with eggs, oil, and butter that are high in fat. These foods are usually eliminated completely or substantially reduced on a low-fat diet. Chocolate bars and many other types of candy may also be higher in fat.

Nuts and Seeds

The fats in most nuts (like almonds or walnuts) and seeds (like chia seeds, flaxseed, or sunflower seeds) provide good fat, but they are generally avoided because they are higher in fat. However, when consuming a low fat diet, you will still want to add small portions of these foods to their diet so that they are getting all of their essential fatty acids. Keep portion size in mind.

For example, you could have 1/4 of an avocado with your salad for lunch. The 21 grams of fat in that serving wouldn't be a full day's worth of fat if your are following the guideline of getting 30% or less of calories from fat.

Avocado and Olives

These fruits are mostly fat, making them off-limits on a low-fat diet. For instance, an avocado provides 21 grams of fat—which for some people on this diet may be a full day's supply of the nutrient.

Fatty Meats

Processed meats (including ground beef, ground pork, sausage, and even some types of ground turkey), some cold cuts (salami, bologna), well-marbled steak, and other cuts of beef are high in saturated fat. They are usually eliminated or reduced on a low-fat diet.

Oils

Plant-based oils (like canola oil, olive oil, or sunflower oil) provide healthy fat, and some are even associated with better heart health. However, on a low-fat diet, they are used sparingly or not at all. Some people on the diet choose to use a cooking spray instead of oil when cooking foods at home to control portions.

Sample Shopping List

You'll find many low-fat foods (both processed and naturally low fat) in most grocery stores. To keep your low-fat eating plan healthy, try to spend most of your time in the outer aisles of the store, like the produce section. In the dairy aisle, look for low-fat alternatives and be prepared to read nutritional labels on packaged foods (like cereals, condiments, and grains) in the inner aisles.

Since the low-fat diet is flexible in terms of food choices, this is not a definitive shopping list and if following the diet, you may find other foods that work best for you.

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors (red peppers, oranges, leafy greens, blueberries, eggplant, etc)
  • Frozen fruits or vegetables are often less expensive than buying fresh
  • Grains, preferably whole grains such as quinoa, oatmeal, brown rice
  • Beans and legumes (black beans, kidney beans, red beans, lentils)
  • Low-fat fish (tilapia, cod, sole)
  • Lean skinless protein such as chicken breast or turkey breast

Sample Meal Plan

You don't need to follow any specific timing or meal schedule on a low-fat diet. If you like to eat three meals each day, you can continue to do so. Snacks are allowed as long as you choose low-fat options that fall within your daily fat intake goals. This is not an all-inclusive meal plan, and if following the diet, you may find many other meals that work well for you.

Day 1

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal topped with berries; black coffee; six almonds
  • Lunch: Leafy green salad with sliced veggies (red pepper, cucumber, tomato) topped with baked cod and drizzled with lemon and one teaspoon of olive oil
  • Dinner: Boneless, skinless chicken breast roasted with fresh herbs and one teaspoon plant-based oil; baked potato topped with salsa; steamed green beans
  • Snack: Low-fat yogurt with a sliced apple

Day 2

  • Breakfast: Scrambled whole egg with two whites with steamed spinach; whole-grain toast with jam
  • Lunch: Broth-based vegetable soup with saltines; a garden salad with low-fat vinaigrette
  • Dinner: Roasted skinless turkey breast; brown rice; grilled asparagus and mushroom kabobs drizzled lightly with olive oil
  • Snack: Low fat cottage cheese with berries

Day 3

  • Breakfast: Egg white sandwich (two egg whites on a toasted English muffin with a slice of low-fat mozzarella cheese); mixed berries
  • Lunch: Grilled chicken salad (grilled chicken breast mixed with celery, herbs, and low-fat salad dressing) on a low-fat tortilla with leafy greens; an apple
  • Dinner: Grilled flank steak; grilled mushrooms, peppers, and onions; rice pilaf
  • Snack: Hummus with carrots, celery, grape tomatoes

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • No foods off-limits

  • Can be effective for weight loss

  • Inexpensive and accessible

  • May improve heart health

Cons
  • Reduces intake of some nutrients

  • May be hard to sustain

  • May increase intake of less healthy foods

Pros

No Foods Off Limits

This isn't a highly restrictive diet in that no foods are categorically off-limits. Even foods high in fat can be consumed in smaller amounts as long as your total daily fat intake falls within your goal range.

Can Be Effective

Because fat has over twice the number of calories per gram as carbohydrates and protein (9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram, respectively), limiting fat intake can be an effective way to reduce caloric intake and lose weight. And because the low-fat diet has been around for a long time, it has been studied substantially.

In comparison with other diets, some studies indicate that a healthy low-fat diet can be effective for weight loss, although diet quality matters significantly and a low-fat diet isn't necessarily more effective than other diets.


Some studies indicate that a healthy low-fat diet can be effective for weight loss, although diet quality matters significantly and a low-fat diet isn't necessarily more effective than other diets.

Inexpensive and Accessible

You can choose to go on a low-fat diet without paying for a subscription service or buying special meals. Low-fat foods (both naturally low in fat and manufactured low-fat) are readily available in almost every grocery store.

May Improve Heart Health

If you reduce your intake of saturated fat on a low-fat diet, you may be able to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association suggests consuming no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day (equal to about 5% or 6% of total daily calories), as this type of fat is linked to a higher risk for heart disease. By watching your fat intake on a low-fat diet, you may become more mindful about healthier fat choices and consume mono- and polyunsaturated fats instead.

Cons

Reduces Intake of Nutrients

Healthy fats provide key benefits to the body. Your body needs dietary fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fat supports healthy cell growth and protects your body's organs. Healthy fats can also keep cholesterol and blood pressure under control. By severely reducing your intake, especially to levels below what is recommended by the USDA, you may limit these benefits, and your body may not get the nutrients it needs.

Hard to Sustain

Fat helps you to feel full and provides a satisfying mouthfeel in foods. Without the satiating qualities of fat during meals and snacks, you may end up overeating other foods and increasing your caloric intake, sugar intake, or carb intake to levels that are not consistent with your goals.

May Increase Intake of Less Healthy Foods

When the low-fat diet first became the diet of choice among Americans, several brands developed ultra-processed, low-fat alternatives to traditionally high-fat foods, like cookies, ice cream, and chips. These foods are often high in sugar or starch and may actually inhibit your health goals rather than help. Many of the foods provide little in the way of good nutrition, and some studies even suggest that overconsuming them may lead to problems with overweight and diabetes.

Is a Low Fat Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The low-fat diet can be a healthy and sustainable eating plan that is consistent with USDA recommendations. However, there can be quite a bit of variation from one low-fat diet to the next, and some low-fat programs can be extremely restrictive and unsustainable while promoting highly processed foods. The key is to choose high-quality, nutritious foods and to keep your fat intake within guidelines suggested by the USDA (20% to 35% of calories from fat).

Whether or not the diet is effective for you will also depend on your goals. If weight loss is your reason for adopting this plan, be mindful of your total caloric intake and the nutrient quality of your food choices. It is possible to eat low-fat foods (nutrient-dense choices and junkier foods like low-fat cookies and cakes) and still consume too many calories to meet your weight loss goal. Similarly, if optimal heart health is your goal, you will also want to be aware of the balance of nutrition among your food choices.

The low-fat diet can be a healthy and sustainable eating plan that is consistent with USDA recommendations. The key is to choose high-quality, nutritious foods and to keep your fat intake within guidelines suggested by the USDA (20% to 35% of calories from fat).

Health Benefits

A low-fat diet has been associated with certain health benefits in research studies. But the type of fat that is reduced or eliminated makes a big difference.

Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

For instance, some studies have shown that men who reduced total fat and saturated fat from 36% and 12% of total calories to 27% and 8% of total calories, respectively, saw a substantial decline in their total and LDL cholesterol levels. Similarly, many studies have linked a reduction in saturated fat intake with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

May Prevent Certain Cancers

Some studies suggest that reducing dietary fat intake may prevent cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, and prostate. But that doesn't necessarily mean that reducing your fat intake below recommended levels is advised. And researchers are still unclear about the relationship between different types of dietary fat and cancer.

May Result in Weight Loss

Lastly, a low-fat diet has been associated with weight loss for decades. While there are anecdotal reports of weight loss on a low-fat diet, and some studies do support the fact that weight loss can occur on a low-fat diet, there is no strong evidence that a low-fat diet is more effective than other diets.

Health Risks

There are a few concerns that some nutrition and health experts have about low-fat diets. But again, the nutritional quality of the foods consumed on a low-fat diet makes a big difference in mitigating potential health risks.

May Result in Macronutrient Imbalances

In some cases, going low-fat can lead to a nutritional imbalance. For instance, if you cut back on fat but maintain your caloric intake and protein intake, you're likely to consume more carbohydrates.

The USDA suggests that adults consume 45% to 65% of calories from carbs. If you are only consuming 10% of calories from fat and less than 25% of your calories from protein, your carb intake will be above the recommended guidelines.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a diet that is high in carbohydrates is believed to result in large swings in your body’s insulin levels, which may cause increased hunger and calorie consumption.

May Increase Intake of Refined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrate quality matters as well. Some companies make low-fat foods by replacing fat with large amounts of refined carbohydrates. Frequently consuming highly processed, low-fat foods packed with refined carbohydrates may increase the risk of metabolic disorders and hypertriglyceridemia.

May Not Be Effective for Long-Term Weight Loss

And if weight loss is your goal, going low fat may not be your best option. Several studies have compared a low-fat diet to other types of weight-loss diets (like low-carb diets). In one comprehensive review published in 2015, researchers found that higher fat, low-carbohydrate diets led to greater long-term weight loss than low-fat diets.

May Result in Micronutrient Imbalances

Lastly, you may not get all of the micronutrients you need if you reduce your fat intake significantly. Your body needs dietary fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. And many fatty foods, like nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, and dairy products, are good sources of nutrients like fiber, protein, and calcium.

A Word From Verywell

There is strong evidence to suggest that reducing saturated fat and eliminating trans fat from your diet is a smart nutritional approach. If weight loss is your goal, then watching your fat intake might make sense in reducing your overall calorie intake to lose weight.

However, healthy fats from foods like plant-based oils, avocado, and fatty fish, play an important role in good health and in a healthy approach to weight loss. If you're unsure of the best way to include fat in your diet, work with a registered dietitian to get personalized recommendations to help you reach your health and wellness goals.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Rolls B and Barnett R. The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan. New York, NY: HarperTorch; 2002.