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Can a Low-Fat Diet Ever be Healthy?

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Low-fat diets don't work, right? But research shows that in some cases, low-fat diets can be healthy. Read on to discover how low-fat diets can be used with positive results.

Standard medical advice is to eat a diet low in fat, sugar, and salt. But recent studies have found that in general, the amount of fat in your diet does not play as big of a role in overall health and weight as previously thought.

Still, low-fat diets may have health benefits in some cases. Find out about these possible exceptions below.

Why Low Fat Doesn't Work

Numerous low-fat diet studies have found that in general, low-fat diets do not work. According to a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association over a seven-year period, women who eat low fat diets have some weight reduction benefits, but not strong links between lower fat eating and weight loss. Most weight loss was seen in the first year, with little change after that date.

Reducing fat has no effect on cancer risk or heart disease risk, studies have found. There are many reasons why low-fat diets may not work, including the possibility that dieters exchange fat for sugar and carbs, which encourages weight gain.

Can Low-Fat Diets Ever Work?

According to some proponents of low fat diets, what makes a low-fat diet fail is the fact that most people still eat a moderate amount of fat rather than a true low-fat diet. These individuals believe that for low-fat diets to be truly effective, dieters have to restrict fat to about 10 percent or less of total calorie intake. Most of the ineffective low-fat diet studies have been conducted on individuals who eat around 30 percent of their calories from fat. A true low-fat diet, however, restricts fat intake much more.

The 2006 Women's Health study found that women who did restrict their fat consumption to recommended levels were more likely to lose weight and had reduced risk of developing heart conditions, cancer, and other preventable diseases.

The 10 Percent Fat Diet

A true low-fat diet has 10 percent or less of calories from fat. Because it is difficult to eat protein without fat, most low-fat diets are also low in protein. Ultra low-fat diets are also high in carbs, because most vegetables are high in carbs. A standard low-fat diet may have 10 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent from protein, and about 80 percent from carbs.

Because it is difficult to eat 10 percent or less of calories from fat, a typical low-fat diet may avoid natural fats, like olive oil, coconut oil, dairy, meat, nuts, and avocados. The biggest risk from eating an extremely low-fat diet is the danger of vitamin absorption. Many vitamins, like A, E, K, and D are fat-soluble, which means that a diet low in fat may contribute to malnutrition because the body does not have enough fat to absorb these necessary vitamins.

Fat also helps regulate hormones and build cell membranes. Because of these drawbacks, it might seem like a low-fat diet is never a good idea, but that is not what research shows.

Low-Fat Diet Studies

Research on extremely low-fat diets reach back as far as the 1930s. The grandfather of all low-fat studies was published in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1946.

In this study, the results of the Rice Diet were tested on patients who had high blood pressure and kidney disease. The Rice Diet allowed study participants to eat fruit, fruit juice, rice, and sugar. Although it sounds like a recipe for disaster by what we know of dietary needs today, for some reason, it worked well for preventing high blood pressure and kidney disease.

Today, ultra low-fat diets have been linked with weight loss, heart disease risk reduction, reduced cholesterol, and reduced rates of cancer.

Health Benefits of Extreme Low-Fat Diets

If study participants stick to a 10 percent intake of fat, the following health benefits have been documented by numerous studies: Obesity In 1975, a study on low-fat diets and extremely obese study participants found that when the participants at an extremely low-fat diet, they were able to lose an average of 140 pounds in just a few months. All study participants ate the Rice Diet, which was surprisingly effective for massive weight loss.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is triggered by sugar rushes, which doesn't seem compatible for the sugar-based Rice Diet at all. However, a study from 1958 tested the Rice Diet in patients with diabetes and found that in a group of 100 diabetics, 63 of them had reduced fasting blood sugar levels after just a few weeks on the Rice Diet. 58 percent of the study participants were able to stop insulin treatments after switching to the Rice Diet.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease. Individuals with MS have problems with the brain, optic nerves, and the spine. A long-term study started in 1948 followed 150 patients with MS. The study author instructed the MS patients to eat an ultra low-fat diet for 34 years. Of the patients who stuck to the diet, only 34 percent of them died. However, of the patients who did not follow the prescribed diet, 80 percent had died within 30 years.

Heart Disease

Numerous studies have found that reducing fat in the diet can help control cholesterol levels and reduce blood pressure. Inflammation is also reduced when fat intake is brought down to 10 percent or below. A study from 2014 published in the Journal of Family Practice examined 198 patients with heart disease for several years. During the study, only one patient who followed an ultra low-fat diet had a heart attack. However, in the control group, 62 percent of study participants had a cardiac event such as a heart attack.

How Can Low-Fat be Both Good and Bad?

In all honesty, researchers are not sure why low-fat diets can have both positive and negative effects. However, there are several theories about what makes a low-fat diet work.

Why Low-Fat Can Work

Theory 1: Low-fat diets work for treating extreme health problems on a temporary basis due to unusual calorie restriction.

Theory 2: Low-fat diets tend to be bland, which would make someone eat less. Any calorie restriction will have health benefits for a person who typically over eats.

Theory 3: Extremely low-fat diets help the body heal from inflammation damage which leads to health benefits.

Potential Dangers with Low-Fat Diets

Although low-fat diets can have some benefit, it is easy to tip the scale from healthy to unhealthy. Without fat in the diet, it is easy to become low on fat-soluble nutrients and place the body under extreme stress due to low calorie intake. Hormone imbalance is also common with low-fat diets, as fat intake regulates the body's systems, helps fire chemicals in the brain, and keep the metabolism running properly. Therefore, it is best to only follow an extremely low-fat diet under the direct care of a doctor and for a short time.

Low-Fat Diets Aren't Always Bad

As these studies indicate, when used properly, low-fat diets can be healthy. However, low-fat diets are difficult to follow in the long run, and may actually cause as many problems as they cure. For most people, a diet filled with vegetables, healthy fats, and moderate amounts of protein while avoiding sugar, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats. However, if you are obese, have type 2 diabetes, MS, or heart disease, you may want to consult with your doctor to determine if an extremely low-fat diet is right for you.

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