Are We Really Fatter Now Because We Followed Advice to Eat Less Fat?

In the 1970s, “a government commission mandated that we lower fat consumption to try and reduce heart disease,” reported “60 Minutes” in 2012.

“And we did,” claimed Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, to correspondent Sanjay Gupta.

“And guess what?” he continued. “Heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and death are skyrocketing. When you take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard. And the food industry knew that, so they replaced it with sugar.”



To start with, Americans never ate less fat. Today, we’re consuming roughly 20 percent more fat than we did in 1970. And while sugar consumption rose by 20 percent between 1970 and 2000, it’s now almost back to its 1970 level. What has changed most is grains (mostly white flour): consumption rose 45 percent from 1970 to 2000, and we’re still eating 30 percent more than we did in 1970.

(Incidentally, the “government commission” that Gupta referred to—a Senate Select Committee chaired by George McGovern, which issued the Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977—also urged us to eat less sugar. What’s more, contrary to what Lustig told “60 Minutes,” death rates have dropped and heart disease death rates have plummeted—not skyrocketed—since the 1970s, when adjusted for an aging population.)

So we’re not fatter because we followed advice to eat less fat. Odds are, we’re fatter because we’re eating more—more fat, more sugar, more of almost everything. The food industry has been serving us larger buns, bagels, burritos, cakes, cookies, scones, muffins, doughnuts, pizzas, soft pretzels, pancakes, paninis, wraps, soft drinks, and portions of pasta, lo mein, rice, and more.

What’s more, there’s no good evidence that the food industry ever replaced fat with sugar. Fat-free (or low-fat) ice cream, yogurt, cookies, almond milk, soy milk, pudding, and muffins, for example, have no more sugar than their full-fat versions.

Clearly, some people have assumed that they can’t get fat on fat-free foods. In one study, people ate more yogurt if it was labeled “low-fat.”

And that would be a mistake.

“Decreasing the fat content of the diet does not guarantee that you’re decreasing calories,” explains Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

“If you’re going from full-fat milk to skim milk, you’re almost halving the calories. If you’re going from fatty cuts of meat to very lean cuts of meat, you’re decreasing the calories significantly. But if you’re going to eat fat-free brownies, cookies, waffles, and pancakes, it’s highly unlikely you’re saving any calories at all.”


6 Replies to “Are We Really Fatter Now Because We Followed Advice to Eat Less Fat?”

  1. Nina Teicholz has been researching dietary fat and disease for nearly a decade. Her book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” addresses this issue of saturated fat. Have you read it in its entirety? If so, how do you respond? A segment on GMA with her this week was very intriguing.

  2. This is very helpful information. As a nutrition teacher I have a question about low-fat foods. If fat is removed from a muffin then it has to be replaced with something to take up the space. I have understood that sugar is what was replaced and if not sugar then what? Sarah

  3. I disagree with the assumption underlying “there’s no good evidence that the food industry ever replaced fat with sugar.” That is, low-fat foods haven’t all been augmented with sugar, but the argument put forward by Lustig et al is that a low-fat food is by definition higher in CARBS. Even though it may be lower in calories, it’s the carbs that affect insulin and therefore the entire endocrine reaction (including fat storage) to a given food. A food can only be made up of protein, fat, and carbs. If you reduce the percentage of one of these elements, the other two percentages are higher. So low-fat milk or low-fat yogurt, for example. Lowering milkfat content means that what you’re left with is a higher proportion of lactose. Even without adding any processed sugar, you still have higher carbs. Plus there is evidence that intake of certain fats actually helps the bioavailability of nutrients, and that foods in their natural state are healthier than in processed (fat-lowered) states. Please read the body of work by Robert Lustig and Gary Taubes (“Good Calories, Bad Calories.”
    Other than this, I liked your article.

  4. 60 Minutes has certainly gone down hill in the past few years. Not newsworthy or even thoroughly investigated anymore.

  5. Yes, there is some mental hey its fat free, so I can eat more going on, there is also a little (or more) hey I need more. Remember, fat helpd you feel full and satisfied.

    Adding sugar to the “cardboard” tasting low fat foods, only help make it palatable, and adds to the can addiction.

    We still are not feeling satisfied without the fat.

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