Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Myth: A low fat diet is best

Nicole Senior

Fact: It’s not how much fat you eat, it’s what type of fat that counts.
It’s fair to say most people are scared of fat and try to avoid it. However, failure to eat the right kinds of fat is a primary reason why Australia’s national average cholesterol level has not improved in over 25 years. This is due in no small part to well-intentioned but misleading public health education aimed to reduce the risk of heart disease. Health authorities didn’t think regular folks would understand the difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat, so they went for the simple message to ‘eat less fat’. As a consequence, the food industry went into overdrive in the quest to drive down fat levels, and low fat claims became the most sought by shoppers in the supermarket. Rather than being a good thing for our growing waistlines, eating low fat foods didn’t make any difference and we just grew fatter. Some healthy fat is good, but we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water. While dietary guidelines around the world have now changed their emphasis towards reducing saturated fat and not total fat, the damage has been done.

To help you get your ‘fats’ straight, here are my five favourite dietary edicts.

Commercial reduced-fat, light, low-fat, and fat-free salad dressings are unnecessary. Home-made salad dressings are easy and simple: oil, plus vinegar and/or lemon juice, with perhaps some herbs, spices or perhaps mustard. It is fat-phobia gone mad when perfectly good oils are removed from commercial ‘dressings’ which are then loaded with salt, sugar and additives to put the flavour back in. Enjoying your salad or vegetables with oil is a healthy habit, and also enhances the absorption of antioxidants. The Mediterranean diet is certainly not low fat, but famous for its health benefits.

Reduced fat potato crisps are fattening. Potato crisps and the like were traditionally viewed as party food, to be enjoyed in small quantities on special occasions. Being so rich and tasty, and knowing they were a high-kilojoule (calorie) treat, meant we knew when to put the eating brake on. Having such foods manufactured with a lower fat content has loosened our inhibitions and unleashed the impulse to eat twice as much. The other bad news is these foods are still kilojoule-dense (and nutrient poor), and strangely unsatisfying: a recipe for over-eating. Switching to an unsaturated cooking oil to cook the crisps and reducing the salt is where the real health triumph lies, provided we can stop eating this ‘sometimes’ food after a modest amount (would removing the ‘low fat’ label help?).


Eating chocolate, cakes and biscuits instead of oils, spreads and nuts is a false economy. Like the glittering hope offered by a sub-prime mortgage, saving calories (kilojoules) from healthy fats to spend on treats is a pipedream and will only end in a health meltdown. And like sub-prime mortgages, calories from treats are way too easy to get – restraint is needed. Considering how important omega-3 fats are for mental health, missing out will have you heading into depression. While the occasional calorie sleight-of-hand is OK, if you usually skip healthy fats in order to indulge in nutrient-poor treats (often high in saturated fats), your diet is not healthy. Think of oils, spreads, nuts and seeds as another food group, like lean meat or vegetables, and therefore not inter-changeable with ‘extra’ foods or treats. There is no need to endure dry toast or soggy sandwiches – oil-based spreads (AKA margarine spreads) are healthy, provided you select trans-free, reduced-salt versions.

“Frying” food in water or stock is a crime against cooking. There was a time, in the quest for eliminating fat of any type, when food lovers the world over were thrown into misery by the advice to switch from oil to water or stock. Besides breaking every rule of cooking, flavour and gastronomy, and creating an infinitely inferior result, the advice was counter-productive for health. Oils (any you care to name in your local supermarket) contain good fats, fat-soluble vitamins, and healthful phytochemicals. Why would you avoid such a food? If your answer is, “to lose weight” – see point below.

You don’t need a low fat diet to lose weight. The best weight loss is the result of eating less calories (kilojoules) overall and exercising more. The trick is to maintain a high nutrient intake in fewer calories (kilojoules) and this is where food choice is paramount. You must choose the most nutrient-dense foods from all of the food groups to ensure you stay well-nourished at the same time as burning body fat. A fat-free diet does not contain enough essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, and also leaves a massive flavour black hole. A Cochrane Review meta-analysis of studies concluded there is no advantage to low fat diets over calorie-restricted diets for weight loss. You can still lose weight eating healthy fats so long as your diet is calorie controlled (and it will taste a lot better too).

It should be said there is a place for low fat foods – in the dairy aisle. Because dairy foods are a major source of artery-clogging saturated fat, low fat versions of these nutrient-rich foods are a change for the better and recommended for everyone, including children from 2 years of age. Low-fat dairy foods such as milk and yoghurt are also satisfying and low GI, making them a heart-friendly food.

If you’d like more information on how to lose weight and lower cholesterol in a healthy way, grab a copy of Eat to Beat Cholesterol by Nicole Senior and Veronica Cuskelly. If you’d like great ideas for simple, heart-friendly food made with the goodness of healthy fats and oils, try Heart Food by Veronica Cuskelly and Nicole Senior. Both titles available from www.greatideas.net.au.