Adopting a Low-Fat Diet

Where to begin with low-fat cooking and eating

fresh veggies
Fresh veggies are essential in a healthy, low-fat lifestyle.

 Getty Images

We want to eat a low-fat diet, so how exactly do we go about changing our wicked ways with eating? It’s not about fad diets and excluding whole food groups, that’s for sure. Cutting fat doesn't mean excluding it. Some fat is necessary for our diet. But eating healthy isn't only about lowering our intake of fat. What about those nasty carbs we’ve been hearing about? Well, this is—quite literally—a complex issue. Refined sugars are a no-no but complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole-grain pasta, rice, and bread, are an important component of a healthy low-fat diet.

tips for starting a low fat diet
The Spruce / Melissa Ling

Some Guidelines

A good source on how to begin a healthy, low-fat diet is the American Heart Association, which offers these general guidelines:

  • Total calories should be adjusted to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Choose fats and oils containing 2 grams or less saturated fat per tablespoon. These include liquid and tub kinds of margarine, canola, corn, safflower, soybean and olive oils.
  • Saturated fat intake should be less than 7 percent of total calories. The Dietary Guidelines Committee's suggested upper limit is 10 percent.
  • Trans Fat intake should be less than 1 percent of daily calories.
  • Total fat intake should be adjusted to caloric needs, and ideally should be 30 percent of total calories or less, particularly if you are overweight.
  • Cholesterol intake should be less than 300 mg per day. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee recommends abolishing the upper limit, noting that research findings do not connect dietary cholesterol intake with blood cholesterol levels.
  • Sodium intake should be less than 2,300 mg per day, which is about one teaspoon of salt.
  • Buy only lean cuts of meat, trimming off any visible fat before cooking. Also, before cooking poultry, remove the skin.
  • Add at least two servings of fish to your diet each week. Recent research shows that eating oily fish containing omega-3 fatty acids help reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. Be aware that some types of fish, such as shark, swordfish, and tilefish, may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other environmental contaminants. Women who are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or who are nursing - as well as young children - should avoid eating potentially contaminated fish.
  • Eat at least one meatless meal per week, preferably more.
  • Enjoy whole-grain pasta, rice, bread, and cereal. These are low in saturated fat and high in fiber and other nutrients.
  • Bake, steam, roast, boil or broil foods instead of frying them.
  • Use two egg whites for one whole egg in baked-good recipes. The new dietary guidelines, is recommending lifting the dietary cholesterol limit altogether, which means that you can enjoy whole eggs if you want.
  • Substitute 1 percent (or fat-free) milk, low-fat cheeses and low-fat and nonfat yogurt for their high-fat equivalents.
  • Instead of using artery-clogging butter and rich sauces, add flavor to vegetables with herbs and seasonings.
  • Enjoy fruit and low-fat cookies and cakes instead of high-fat desserts. But limit your intake of sugars.
  • Look out for frostings and sauces, as they are often hidden sources of fat.

Tips to Start

Here are a few things you can do to get started with low-fat living:

  • Purge your pantry of all those high-fat snacks that lead you astray (same goes for your refrigerator).
  • Learn to read labels and look for keywords like "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated," which refer to trans fats. Note how high sugar, in its various forms, appears in the list of ingredients (higher is worse). Pay attention to serving size and number of servings per container (many of us are fooled into thinking they are one and the same - they aren’t).
  • Shop purposefully: plan your meals, make a grocery list - and stick to it!
  • Fill up your fruit bowl, then eat something from it before or after each meal.
  • Drink water and plenty of it - ideally at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day.
  • Get moving! Join an exercise class, go swimming, or simply take a brisk daily walk with your dog or a friend.

Still want bagels or chocolate? Make it a whole-wheat or oat-bran bagel. And if chocolate is your thing, sure, enjoy an occasional piece of dark chocolate—research suggests it does have some health benefits. It’s fine to treat yourself; just try and adjust your intake of other foods accordingly. At the end of the day, if you burn more calories than you consume, you’ll lose weight (if that's your goal). And if you reduce your intake of artery-clogging saturated fats, you can lessen your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Which means you win all around.