For several years, a number of prominent doctors and dieticians have been pushing back against the idea that in order to lose weight, one should eat a low-fat diet. One interesting fact that has led credence to this idea is that while the French eat pretty much full-fat everything, obesity rates in France are extremely low compared to those in the U.S.

The idea was discussed in the books The Fat Fallacy and The French Don’t Diet Plan by Dr. Will Clower, and more recently, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mirelile Guiliano. Those books were based largely on observation and personal experience, but recent medical research has been confirming what these authors have been saying.

One study out of Harvard University, known as the Women’s Health Dietary Modification Trial, began almost a quarter-century ago, when low-fat diets were all the rage. The study followed almost 20,000 women between the ages of 50 and 80 for eight years. The results showed that a low-fat diet conferred no benefits as far as reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease – and furthermore, did not result in any significant weight loss.

The most recent findings are based on an extensive analysis published this month in The Lancet. The study examined the health records of over 135,000 people around the world who either ate low-fat or low-carb diets. It was discovered that those who ate a low-fat diet ran a significantly greater risk of dying from numerous causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, than those on low-carb diets. On the other hand, those who avoided refined carbohydrates – such as white flour, white rice and sugar – had a much lower risk.

In his new book, The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully, pediatrician Aaron Carroll writes:

“Fat consumption does not cause weight gain. To the contrary, it might actually help us shed a few pounds…the evidence in favor of a low-fat diet is very thin, whereas the evidence for the benefits of certain fats is mounting.”

In fact, fat is actually necessary for our bodies to stay healthy. Without fat, there would be no muscle movement, no blood clotting and injury repair, and our nerves would be unprotected, leaving us vulnerable to neurological disorders. Furthermore, without fat, the body is unable to absorb nutrients from food. When people don’t get enough fat in their diet, they tend to make up for it by eating more sugar and refined carbs – both of which have been shown to cause obesity.

It’s still a good idea to avoid certain fats – specifically, the trans fats found in many processed foods (in fact, one should not eat processed foods at all) and eat saturated fats found in red meats and dairy foods in moderation. The best choices for good health, according to the Harvard Medical School, are fish such as salmon and vegetable-based fats found in avocados, olive oil and nuts.  

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.