“Fat free” is a sort of buzz word in the fitness community that has mistakenly become synonymous with “healthy.” Many opt for the “low-fat” or “fat-free” options of their favorite foods, thinking the swap is automatically the better choice for leading a healthy lifestyle or embarking on a weight loss journey. However, it’s not always that simple. On the contrary, our body needs sources of healthy fats to sustain. You may be choosing low-fat foods thinking you’re making a healthier choice, but a consistently low-fat diet could actually have dangerous effects.
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It is first important to take into account that there are contexts where low-fat foods may be the better choice. “If you are currently overweight, have high cholesterol, or struggle to lose weight on a reduced calorie intake, it could be beneficial to eat fat free substitutes.” Says Dr. Terrell Smith, Founding Physician at Spora Health, a telehealth platform offering primary care for people of color. The main benefit of reducing fat intake is lowering weight and reducing common complications related to obesity.
If you aren’t experiencing any of these issues, or at risk of experiencing them, a low-fat diet may do more harm than good. “Your body uses three things for energy: carbs, protein, and fats,” Dr. Smith says, “If you are not getting enough fat in your diet, you will start to break down your body’s stores of energy. Eventually, you can break down your muscle, which is not what you want.” Aside from that, several vitamins our bodies need are fat soluble, which means they are best absorbed into the body by fat. If you have too little fat in the body, you could be putting yourself at risk of deficiency in vitamins A, D, E, and K.
There are some fats that hold more health benefits than others. An excellent source of healthy fats to include in your diet is fish. “I personally love salmon, but tilapia and other less expensive fish options can also provide omega 3 fatty acids.” Dr. Smith says. As a smaller start to boost your healthy fat intake, he recommends swapping butter with olive oil when cooking, as it is broken down well by the body and has lots of nutrients.
Ultimately, too much fat in your diet could put you at risk for health issues. While low-fat options may make it easier to lose weight, your body needs healthy fats to function at its best. Dr. Smith’s main recommendation is aiming for balance, not perfection. “Focus on a balanced diet with an emphasis on leafy green vegetables and reducing overall calories. Eating too little fat has risk factors as well, so balance is more important than elimination,” He says, “Most people benefit from monitoring fat intake plus total calories, rather than completely avoiding fat altogether. Balance and moderation are key!”