What happened to the low fat diet that was so popular in the 1990s?

If you follow dieting trends, you probably haven’t heard much about the low fat diet since the 1990s. However, the low fat diet is still an effective meal plan for weight loss.  Let’s take a look at the history of the low fat diet so we can understand these trends.

History of the origin of the low fat diet

The American diet in general was high in fat in the 1950s to 1970s.  Heart disease was common, and there were eight U.S. Senators who died of heart disease while in office in the 1960s and 1970s.  There was a concern that the American diet was leading to disease. So Senator George McGovern called a hearing in July 1976. One of the presenters at the senate hearing was Nathan Pritikin who believed that he could reduce heart disease with dietary changes.  Pritikin had been diagnosed with heart disease at age 55, and he researched ways to reverse heart disease. Pritikin noted that primitive cultures who ate a vegetarian low fat diet had less heart disease than Western cultures. So he created a low-fat diet that was high in unrefined carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains.  Also, he included some aerobic exercise in his popular “Pritikin Diet.” The first set of dietary guidelines for America was created as a result of that hearing. Those dietary guidelines suggested a low fat diet.

How did the low fat diet play out in America?

Americans got the health message that eating fat was bad for you, and eating carbohydrates was good for you.  The food industry developed products that were fat-free, but many of these foods were highly processed and had a lot of added sugar. In 1988, the American Heart Association began a program of labeling foods with its “heart healthy” seal of approval, and food companies paid for the approval.  However, many processed foods that were low in fat had the “heart healthy” seal, including Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Low-Fat Pop-Tarts.

So Americans got a confusing message, and rather than eating whole grains and fruits and vegetables to make up a healthy low fat diet as Pritikin had recommended, Americans ate a lot of processed foods with added sugar and low fat. 

The fall of the low fat diet

The peak of the fat free diet in America was in the early 1990s to about 2004 when the low fat diet began to lose favor.

The reasons for the decline in the low fat diet are complex, but there are a few main reasons.  First, the rates of obesity in America continued to increase from the 1980s into the 90s and 2000s (and still are increasing).  Also, research began to show that a low-fat diet did not necessarily lead to decreased risk of heart disease, and that certain fats were healthy.

However, low fat diets are generally still preferred by major medical organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society. Also, the meal plan suggested by the US government, known as “MyPlate,” is a low fat diet. For more information, see www.myplate.gov.  The emphasis now is shifted back to whole grains and fruits and vegetables, and not just a focus on reducing fat.

What is a healthy low fat diet?

Meal plans that are low fat are defined as about 20-30% of the calories consumed are from fat. Since fat is restricted, these meal plans are generally higher in carbohydrate; about 55-65% of calories consumed fall into the carbohydrate category. Also, there is fat in most sources of protein, so in order to keep the amount of fat low, the percentage of protein consumed is usually lower than in other plans, or about 15% of calories consumed.

Vegetarian and Vegan

Vegetarian and vegan eating plans tend to be low in fat. People who follow a vegan diet eat only food that comes from plants and do not consume dairy, eggs, or use animal products. Vegetarians avoid meat but eat dairy and eggs. There are also vegetarians who do eat fish; they are known as pescatarians. Regardless of whether someone is a vegetarian, vegan, or pescatarian, they obtain protein from foods like low-fat dairy, soy, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Dean Ornish

Another popular low fat eating plan is the Ornish Diet. The Ornish Diet is lower in fat than other diets listed and typically includes about 10% of calories from fat compared with the other low fat diets which recommend about 20% – 30% of calories come from fat. The Ornish Diet recommends the bulk of the calories come from beans, legumes, fruits, grains, and vegetables. Some low- or nonfat dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are allowed in moderation. Following this meal plan means avoiding meats (both red and white), oils, and foods containing oils, such as avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, full-fat dairy, and sugar.


Another low- fat meal plan is called LEARN, which stands for Lifestyle, Exercise, Attitude, Relationships and Nutrition. LEARN is an overall lifestyle program that helps people to understand their habits. The meal plan with LEARN is low fat and calorie restricted.1

Diabetes Prevention Program

One more low fat eating plan is the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP). The National DPP is a partnership of public and private organizations including the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and the YMCA working to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes. This program is a lifestyle change program designed for people who are at risk for diabetes, but who do not already have diabetes. A small group of people meet weekly for 16 weeks with a trained lifestyle coach, and the program continues for a year with monthly group sessions. Each session includes some lessons as well as interactive support. The DPP includes eating healthier, reducing stress, and getting more physical activity. The cornerstone of the meal plan is reducing grams of fat.

Advantages and disadvantages of the low fat diet

Once you understand the amount of fat contained in food, following a low fat diet becomes easier. Also, low fat diets offer several health benefits. For example, a vegetarian diet has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, the Ornish Diet has been proven to reverse heart disease, and the Diabetes Prevention Program decreases the risk in developing diabetes.

However, low fat diets generally only lead to significant weight loss if you also restrict calories. The plans I listed above feature methods for restricting calories. For example, MyPlate limits portions, which helps decrease calories consumed. The Ornish Diet limits the amount of certain foods to decrease excess caloric intake. For example, you can have no more than two servings a day of non-fat dairy and no more than two servings a day of refined carbohydrates and no more than one serving of alcohol per day. In the Diabetes Prevention Program you track your food using a food diary to help keep calorie intake low. Regardless of plan, most people will need to consciously restrict calories or portion sizes in order to lose weight on a low fat eating plan.

Another important point to keep in mind when choosing a low fat eating plan is that sometimes hunger can be an issue. This is because fat helps us feel satiated or full. If you want to follow a low fat diet and hunger is an issue for you, you might need to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables you consume as well as eating small amounts of food more often.

Do you have more questions about how you can lose weight?  Check out my ebook The Obesity Solution, A compassionate step-by-step guide to finally losing the weight and keeping it off.

  1. Brownell KD. The LEARN Manual for Weight Management. Dallas, Tex:

American Health Publishing Co; 2000

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