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Why your doctor is wrong about low-fat diets

By Dr. Mary James, ND

What’s the best way to get rid of that belly fat? A lot of well-meaning practitioners still advise following low-fat diets in a misguided attempt to help you reduce overall body fat.

low fat diets can increase belly fat

But science shows this is wrong. We know now that low-fat diets don’t work for weight loss. And worse, they also leave your body starving for the kind of fat it needs to achieve your best weight.

Once you understand why low-fat diets don’t work, you’ll know what to eat instead.

Low fat often means high sugar

Many low-fat or no-fat eating plans hide the fact that they’re higher in sugars than regular weight loss options. This extra sugar only makes your belly fat problem worse. Excess sugar contributes to insulin resistance, which triggers increased fat production, especially around the belly area.

It’s important to keep in mind that “sugar” represents much more than those white crystals in the sugar bowl. Any carbohydrate, but especially “simple” carbs made from white flour, produces sugar in the body. Alcohol also turns into sugar.

low fat yogurt has sugar that causes belly fat

An eye-opening 2016 study revealed that the low-fat and no-fat versions of certain foods — low-fat dairy, low-fat baked goods, and low-fat oils and salad dressings — were higher in sugar than the regular versions.

Adding sugar or simple carbs to your diet? Not a great way to lose belly fat. Let’s dig deeper.

Here’s how extra sugar makes us even fatter

Each time you eat foods high in sugar or simple carbohydrates, your body naturally releases insulin. This hormone is the key to getting that sugar (now glucose) inside the cell, where it’s used as fuel to help the cell function. This is a normal and even vital process.

But when you eat too much sugar and/or simple carbs at a time, especially on a regular basis, more insulin is released than your body can handle. Eventually your cells stop accepting the glucose. At this point, they become “insulin resistant.” Because the glucose now can’t get in, more of it circulates in your bloodstream.

And guess what? The body can’t tolerate high blood sugar levels. So it moves it into storage by converting all that sugar into — you guessed it — more fat.

That’s why low-fat diets don’t work. Because they are higher in carbohydrates and sugar, you actually end up with more fat deposits on your body. You’ve also increased your risk of diabetes.

Fat isn’t your real enemy when you want to lose weight

If you want to get rid of belly fat, don’t deprive yourself of healthy fats. Even though fats are concentrated in calories (the reason that low-fat diets were invented in the first place), quality fats provide you with essential building blocks for a strong, lean body. They also help you feel full so you don’t eat as much!

woman happy to be shopping for new swimsuit

Some of the best sources of healthy fats are:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Avocado
  • Oily fish (salmon is a great choice)
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil

Instead of measuring grams of fat and filling up on extra sugar contained in those low-fat/no-fat “foods,” focus on replacing simple carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol with healthy fats, lean protein, vegetables and plenty of water.

Simple substitutions can help your body regulate glucose and insulin better. Try swapping out bread, pasta or rice for sautéed greens or roasted cauliflower. Make your own salad dressings so you can control the ingredients. And get in the habit of using a generous amount of olive oil in these dressings, or grapeseed oil for cooking. (Olive oil isn’t meant for high heat — it breaks down into trans fats. Grapeseed oil is stable even in high heat.)

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You feel fuller — and more satisfied — when you eat fat

Healthy fat in your diet also helps reduce hunger. Fat slows the release of food from the stomach. When you eat fat, your fat cells also release leptin, a hormone that triggers the sensation of fullness. One study showed that people ate less overall if they had a little fat at the beginning of a meal.

So instead of no fat, try to eat some healthy, natural fat with every meal.

What to do about stubborn belly fat

If your belly fat just won’t budge no matter what you do, you might have a hormonal imbalance related to:

  • Perimenopause/menopause
  • Adrenal dysfunction
  • Thyroid issues

Take our easy Hormonal Imbalance Quiz to see if you could be suffering from one of these kinds of hormonal imbalance.

Try trading low-fat for healthy fat options and take steps to resolve any possible hormonal imbalance your body might be dealing with. Then you just might feel ready to try on that cute new swimsuit or pair of pants!

For more tips on finally getting rid of your belly fat, see our article Lose belly fat in 5 steps.

Nguyen, PK, et al. “A systematic comparison of sugar content in low fat vs regular versions of food. Nutr Diabetes, 6(1), 2016. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4742721/

Last Updated: July 7, 2024
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