Nutrition Articles

6 Risks of Eating a Low-Fat Diet

How Low Can You Go? The Big Fat Truth about Low-Fat Diets

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The all-or-nothing mentality prevails in our society. Here at SparkPeople though, we know better. Moderation is our mantra, and we repeat it so often that most of us understand the importance of applying it to exercise, eating and setting goals. Still, there's one thing that many of us fear so much that we forgo moderation and head to extremes: fat. The residual effects of the low-fat craze of the 1990s linger, causing many people to believe that less is more when it comes to fat. 

Being conscious of your dietary fat intake is definitely a good thing, especially when you're trying to reduce your risk of heart disease or lose weight. But if you take it too far, you could be putting your health in jeopardy.

So how much fat do you need?
For healthy adults, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 20% to 35% of your daily calories come from fat. Both SparkPeople and the American Heart Association take a middle of the road approach, advocating a 30% fat intake. Use the following chart (or refer to your SparkDiet plan) to see your estimated daily fat recommendations based on these ranges.

Recommended Daily Fat Intake Based on Calorie Needs
 
Daily Calories Ideal Fat Intake* Too Low^ Too High+
1,200 27-47 g < 27 g > 47 g
1,300 28-51 g < 28 g > 51 g
1,400 31-54 g < 31 g > 54 g
1,500 33-58 g < 33 g > 58 g
1,600 36-62 g < 36 g > 62 g
1,700 38-66 g < 38 g > 66 g
1,800 40-70 g < 40 g > 70 g
1,900 42-74 g < 42 g > 74 g
2,000 44-78 g < 44 g > 78 g
2,100 47-82 g < 47 g > 82 g
2,200 49-86 g < 49 g > 86 g
2,300 51-89 g < 51 g > 89 g
2,400 53-93 g < 53 g > 93 g

*20%-35% of daily calories
^Less than 20% of daily calories
+Greater than 35% of daily calories

Lower fat isn't necessarily better. Regularly consuming fewer than 20% of your daily calories from fat (see "Too Low" on the chart above) will put your health at risk in many ways as discussed above. A diet too high in fat (see "Too High" on the chart above) can also lead to problems—heart disease, diabetes, cancer and weight gain. Here are six health risks you're taking when you restrict your fat intake too far.

1. Poor Vitamin Absorption
Eating a diet too low in fat can interfere with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Because these nutrients are fat soluble, your body needs dietary fat to utilize them. These vitamins are stored mostly in the liver and fat tissue and are important in bodily functions such as growth, immunity, cell repair and blood clotting. If you're not eating enough fat to bring these vitamins into your body, they will be excreted, and you may be at risk for a vitamin deficiency.

2. Depression
A diet that's too low in fat—especially essential fatty acids, which your body can only get from food—might hurt your mental health. Both omega-3s and omega-6s play roles in mood and behavior. They are the precursor to many hormones and chemicals produced in the brain. One study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders has linked low and abnormal essential fatty acid intake to depressive symptoms. Other research shows that, because fatty acids help to insulate nerve cells in the brain, allowing these nerve cells to better communicate with one another. People who are deficient in omega-3s may suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and ADHD.
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About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

Member Comments

  • FOXGLOVE999
    The low fat book in the 90's about reversing heart disease advocated 10% of calories from fat, that's significantly lower than SP's 30%. Often the lowfat craze has been blamed for our current obesity problem, but I really question how much the average American diet changed. I use lowfat and reduced fat products and my fat intake usually runs about 40-50% of my calories. Things are not always as they seem. - 9/6/2014 7:40:04 PM
  • This article is entirely wrong. You do not need to ingest extra fat. All plants have fat in them. Read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. Read Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. Read any of Dr. John McDougall's books on the benefits of eating a whole foods, plant based with no animal products and no added oil.

    I have been eating this way for a year and I have never felt better, enjoyed my food more, or lost and kept off weight more easily. - 4/4/2014 7:23:38 PM
  • Hmmmm......the "low-fat" recommendation of the 1990's was that we reduce our fat consumption from 45% of our daily calories to 30% of our calories from fat. 45% was considered "normal" then and 30% was "low-fat".

    So, when we talk about the low-fat craze of the 90's, we are really talking about a recommendation to lower our consumption to 30% of calories from fat, which is considered "moderate" now!

    Part of the problem in the 1990's is that people started eating "low-fat" food that still had plenty of calories, much of them from sweeteners. I remember the Snackwell phase - my husband and I both noted at the time, though, that they may have been low-fat but they were still high calorie.

    People were believing that they could eat as many calories as they wanted and not gain weight as long as they ate a low-fat diet that did not consider calories and the type of food they were eating. Ridiculous! How could people believe that consuming lots of chocolate syrup would *not* add to their waistlines? Sure it has 0 fat, but it has 100 calories per 2 TBSP serving!

    Eating whole, unprocessed food is ideal. When we eat processed food, we need to read the nutrition labels intelligently (serving size, order & type of ingredients, etc). Look for articles online that can teach this because, in general, the manufacturers will do what it takes to sell as much of their product as possible and can sometimes be a bit sneaky in the way they present their products. (There is so much psychology involved in selling products. I read an interesting article that said green used to be a taboo color in food packaging because it implied mold. Snackwells was one of the first food products to be packaged in a green box, and the industry discovered that consumers perceived the product as natural & healthy. Because of that, many more products now are packaged in green!)

    http://www.nyti
    mes.com/1990/
    02/28/us/repo
    rt-urges-low-
    fat-diet-for-everyone.html

    http://www.spar
    kpeople.com/r
    esource/nutri
    tion_articles.asp?id=145

    http://www.spar
    kpeople.com/r
    esource/nutr... - 1/6/2014 7:19:00 PM
  • I agree with most of this article. It does bother me some the # of people who are still convinced they must eat low fat/no fat all of the time. In the article, it suggests if you're trying to lose weight, you should still watch your fat content. However fat in foods does not equal fat on the body. I finally switched to eating whole foods, which includes full fat butter, whole milk, full-fat cheese and many other no-nos for a low fat diet. And guess what? I lost more weight, more quickly! And how? It's because I was feeling full much more quickly than with the low fat substitutes, which meant smaller portions. And the other thing that showed me that eating fats is healthy, all my blood work came back with better numbers than when I was eating the supposed healthy stuff. It's sugar that causes all these problems. Most of the processed low fat/no fat foods contain high amounts of sugar, way more than we should ever consume. Sugar causes weight gain, sugar feeds cancer cells and causese many more medical issues either as a direct result of eating sugar, or from being overweight from eating too much sugar. I'm happy for this article, but I still see plenty more articles and recipes on SP stating to limit your fat intake and eat the low fat/no fat varieties of foods. Hard to see those things and then see this article and know what one to follow. - 1/6/2014 12:37:09 PM
  • Sparkpeople's guidelines are low-fat and high-carb though too, compared to other low carb diets like paleo and ketogenic. I don't worry too much if I go over my fat guideline as long as my calories are in line because I believe healthy fats are good for you. - 1/6/2014 12:12:05 PM
  • I found very interesting. Especially the link to depression. - 1/6/2014 10:26:33 AM
  • I appreciate the nutrient ranges in the SP tracker. It's so easy for me to consume fat. It's everywhere! Keeping all nutrients within appropriate range has been my goal. - 1/6/2014 7:46:46 AM
  • Good information. Thanks for sharing. - 1/6/2014 5:13:37 AM
  • I love reading the articles. They give good info. - 9/23/2013 5:37:59 PM
  • KADRIYA
    I'm glad to see sparkpeople is coming out against the low fat processed junk...however their preplanned meals still call for stuff like low fat mayo.
    I keep my fat down rather then my carbs (I average 60 a day) because I have a nut allergy. I tried eating low carb but in the end since I do not like eating much meat and cannot eat nuts (I am deathly allergic to almonds and walnuts), I'm happier watching my calories even if low carb is healthier. - 9/3/2012 3:58:31 PM
  • JWOOLMAN
    K. Renee - not sure why this article would cause you to question vegan diets. I often eat vegan and always vegetarian with no eggs and limited dairy due to allergies. Even eating vegan, I have no trouble getting plenty of good fats including omegas. Sometimes people have trouble with a switch to vegan because they aren't including enough fat, having been brainwashed about the horrors of fat. My fat intake is usually around 35% with no special effort, sometimes above on avocado days and sometimes less. But it's safe to be at the higher end of the range if you're eating fats from plant sources. In other words - an avocado is not to be avoided! Nuts and seeds are excellent sources also. Hempseed is especially a nutritional powerhouse, including omegas, for instance. I would caution you non-veggies about tuna, though, I even limit it for the cats because of the contamination problem. Anyway- I have never felt good with low fat, so at least for me any low fat eating plan is not a good idea. But I've been vegetarian almost vegan for decades, so I'm not overdosing on animal fats. - 8/4/2012 2:17:30 AM
  • I went on a low-fat diet in the 90's when it first became popular. VERY LOW - no more than 10 grams a day. Yes, I lost the weight and kept it off for more than 5 years. I also lost my gall bladder and developed colon cancer. With information now coming out, I just have to wonder..... - 6/2/2012 8:01:22 AM
  • Excellent information. Fats are a necessary piece in the delicate balancing act we call macronutrients. - 5/22/2012 11:43:18 AM
  • This was news for me! Not all of it, though.

    Thanks for a wonderfully informative article. - 4/24/2012 1:25:26 AM
  • K_RENEE
    I have a question about vegan diets. I know that vegan diets are not always fat free, but it kind of makes me wonder if they are all that good for you after reading this article. I don't doubt that it's better to eat more plant based diet than a meat focus.ed diet, but I guess as long as you get enough of the "good fats" you should be okay - 3/3/2012 10:13:11 PM

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