The Skinny on Lowfat Diets

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: May 26, 2010

According to the most recent findings from a key clinical trial, women need more than a low-fat diet to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and colorectal cancer. The National Institutes of Health’s Women’s Health Initiative (WHI’s) discovered a low-fat eating pattern might not significantly reduce the risks of these health risks for postmenopausal women. Experts cannot completely abandon the notion of a low-fat diet since it’s still an effective way to maintain a healthy body weight and prevent obesity. Understanding the differences between “good fats” and “bad fats” is still essential to a healthy lifestyle as is exercise.

The WHI Dietary Modification (DM) trial was based on the hypothesis that a low-fat dietary pattern can reduce the risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and heart disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, it was the largest investigative clinical trial on the subject. The $415 million federal study commenced in 1993 and included 48,835 women of multiple races and ethnicities, ages 50-79. The women followed strict health guidelines for 8 years. They frequently congregated in small groups of 8-15 in order for dieticians and nutritionists to monitor them.

The trial was a randomized controlled clinical trial with a “non-intervention” group used to compare the frequency of cases of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and heart disease to those of the “intervention” group. Sixty percent of participants didn’t change their regular eating habits (non-intervention group) while 40% were included in the dietary change group. The low-fat diet was based on fat consumption of 20% of calories consumed per day, high fruit/vegetable (5 or more servings daily), and high grain (6 or more servings daily).

The conclusions state that the low-fat diet does not have a large influence on breast cancer, colorectal cancer or heart disease. The diet did not reduce the incidence of these health problems as many experts once hypothesized. Although the risk of colorectal cancer was unaffected by the dietary change, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports a possible benefit for women who were taking aspirin or combined hormone therapy (estrogen plus progestin). NIH qualifies this statement by claiming the results could have been a coincidence but additional benefits were still found from the study.

Although the initial hypothesis was disproved due to the lack of statistical significance in the results, benefits of a low-fat diet do exist. The low-fat diet reduced the risk for breast tumors for the estrogen and progesterone receptor. Also, women who began the study with diets that were very high in fat significantly reduced their risk for invasive breast cancer incidence when they switched to a low fat diet.

Results surprised the professional community as many doctors promoted a low-fat diet to prevent these cancers and diseases. For years, professionals suspected the foods people eat, directly reflect their ability to conflict chronic diseases. Some experts heavily criticize the results of the WIH study for many reasons. Some believe the study was not conducted for a long enough time period. Others consider the fat percentage of calories consumed (20%) was not low enough.

Even with the unpromising results from the WHI study, it is still difficult to dismiss the opinion that a low-fat diet is a good thing. Besides, the study was not designed to investigate the benefits of a low-fat diet. It merely provides a lack of evidence for particular health risk preventions. WHI concludes, “It seems unlikely that changes in any one single food group or source of energy will improve overall health; rather, the total dietary pattern and lifestyle (including exercise) may be the key to better health.” So, we should still resort to the old advice of “get plenty of exercise and eat healthy”.

Eating healthy involves choosing the right fats in your diet. The main types of fats include saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans fatty acids. The good fats are polyunsaturated fats including Omega-6 and Omega-3 (essential fatty acids) and monounsaturated fats. These fats are critical to good health and are in foods such as flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, nuts, walnuts, cold-water fish (wild salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, shellfish, etc.), or fish-oil supplements, tofu and other types of soy, and many more. Although there is no recommended daily intake of the “good fats”, they are essential to a balanced diet.

All other fats are unhealthy, “bad fats”. They should be cut back in your diet or completely avoided. Trans fatty acids are thought to contribute to the development of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Trans fatty acids are hydrogenised fats and oils that aren’t found anywhere in nature and may be more unhealthy than saturated fats..

Webmd compiled a list of the top 10 “trans fat” foods.

  • Butter substitutes- including butter, margarine and shortening
  • Packaged foods- including cake mixes, Bisquick and others
  • Soups- Ramen noodles, soup cups
  • Fast food- Fries, chicken and anything else deep fried in partially hydrogenated oil, pancakes and grilled sandwiches (from the margarine on the grill)
  • Frozen food- pies, pot pies, waffles, pizza
  • Baked goods- doughnuts (contain shortening in dough, cooked in trans fat), pound cake, cream-filled cookies
  • Chips and crackers- potato chips, corn chips, Wheat Thins, Cheez-Its
  • Breakfast food- cereals, granola bars, energy bars
  • Cookies and candy
  • Toppings and dips- nondairy creamers, flavored coffee, gravy mixes, salad dressing

Alternatives to the common items listed above are:

  • Soft-tub margarine
  • Homemade baking
  • Make your own soup or try fat-free or reduced-fat cans
  • Skip the fries
  • Choose the baked types over breaded ones
  • Homemade baking and fat-free baking products
  • Pretzels, toast, pita bread are good alternatives
  • Whole wheat toast, bagels, many cereals
  • Gummy bears, jelly beans
  • Skim milk, soy milk or powdered, nonfat dry milk in coffee, fat-free salad dressings

Saturated fats should also be avoided. These fats are usually solid or waxy at room temperature and found in animal products (red meat, poultry, butter, whole milk). Coconut, palm and other tropical oils are also high in saturated fat. The USDA and HHS recommend saturated fats should constitute less than 10% of your total daily calories.

Another important component to lowering health risks during menopausal and post-menopausal years includes exercise. A low-fat diet and a suitable amount of regular exercise is the combination to unlocking a healthy lifestyle. Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease, breast cancer and osteoporosis. Women who exercise regularly have less ovarian, uterine and colon cancer than sedentary women. The benefits are innumerable. Start today.

Educate yourself on eating right and exercising regularly to prevent major health risks we often see transpire during the menopausal years. Use this knowledge in order to work towards a healthy lifestyle can begin with your next trip to the grocery store. Don’t disregard the low-fat diet as it may be effective in preventing diseases with a different combination of factors which were out of the realms of the WHI study. Alter your lifestyle accordingly and take the right steps to decreasing your health risks as you travel on the menopause path.


Kolata, G., “Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds”, New York Times, Feb. 8, 2006.

Seibel, MM. The Soy Solution for Menopause: The Estrogen Alternative. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003.

“Low-Fat Dietary Pattern and Risk of Invasive Breast Cancer: The Women’s Health Initiati
ve Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial.” Published in the Feb. 8, 2006 Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 295, No. 6: 629-642). First author: Ross L. Prentice, PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“Low-Fat Dietary Pattern and Risk of Breast Cancer, Colorectal Cancer, and Cardiovascular Disease: The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial.” The Women’s Health Initiative Summary of Findings.

“National Women’s Health Network’s Perspective on ‘Large Clinical Trial Finds Low-Fat Diet Does Not Reduce Incidence of Breast Cancer, Heart Disease or Stroke’.” National Women’s Health Network, Feb. 8, 2006.

“News from the Women’s Health Initiative: Reducing Total Fat Intake May Have Small Effect on Risk of Breast Cancer, No Effect on Risk of Colorectal Cancer, Heart Disease, or Stroke.” National Institutes of Health News Release, Feb. 7, 2006.

“Studies Find Little Cancer Benefit in Low-Fat Diet for Older Women.” American Cancer Society, Feb. 7, 2006.

Davis, J.L., “Top 10 Foods With Trans Fats”, WebMD Feature article.