Reaching for the low-fat alternative at the grocery store seems like an easy way to lose weight, but it’s not making much of a difference, according to a new study published Oct. 29 in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.
A team of Harvard researchers reviewed 53 different randomised control trials — considered the gold-standard in health research — that included over 68,000 people. They compared low-fat diets to low-carb diets, other high-fat diets, and participants’ usual diets and found that people on low-fat diets didn’t lose more weight than people following other kinds of diets.
“In fact,” the authors concluded in the study, “higher-fat, low-carbohydrate dietary interventions led to a slight but significant, greater long-term weight loss than did low-fat interventions.”
Many news stories focused on the failure of the low-fat diet, but in reality the differences between the diets were slight — just a few pounds over the course of a year — and all the diets were better for weight loss than no intervention at all. That’s something that’s been found in previous research as well.
“It’s not that low-fat diets are particularly bad, but they’re no more effective than others,” Kevin D. Hall of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters.
The study authors also noted that the amount of weight loss people saw, no matter what diet they were following, depended on how strictly they adhered to the diet and how long they stuck to it. The intensity of a diet mattered much more than the type.
“This study, which has systematically reviewed data from all the relevant trials, reinforces the evidence from individual studies that dieting, whether low fat or low carbohydrate, works,” said Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, in a statement.
In the review, the average amount of weight lost was about six pounds. People on low-fat diets lost an average of 12 pounds more than people who just followed their usual diets. People on low-carb diets lost an additional 2.5 pounds more, on average, than people on low-fat diets, and they kept the weight off longer. But there was no difference in weight loss between low-fat diets and some of the other high-fat diets.
“What we really need to do,” the study’s lead author Deirdre Tobias told The Guardian, “is step away from a discussion about fats and carbs to whole foods and overall healthy eating patterns. We have complicated what really should be very simple and that is eating an overall healthy diet.”
Eating healthy is simple, and it doesn’t matter what the diet that helps you do that is called. As another major review recently concluded: “A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.” So don’t miss the forest for the trees — or the cheeseburgers.
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