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A Healthy Fat Free Diet?
It Doesn't Exist

Too many high fat foods can make us fat. So, is a healthy fat free diet the best way to lose weight? Absolutely not. In fact, there is no such thing as a diet that is both fat free and healthy. We need some essential fats.

Essential fats

There are two essential fatty acids (fats) that we must have to maintain good health. We can't manufacture them ourselves, so we have to get them from food. They are both polyunsaturated fatty acids:
  1. An omega 6 fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA).

  2. An omega 3 fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
At least 3% of our calories must come from these essential fats. This is one reason why we should not aim for a fat free diet. However, we don't have to add oil to our food to obtain these fats. They are in the whole plant foods that we eat: plants in their original form. To eat them, we don't remove anything except inedible peels, hulls, stalks, or seeds.

Of all the whole plant foods, vegetables are the most nutritious, and they all contain fat. A vegetable-based diet is not a fat free diet.

Fat in vegetables?

Are you skeptical when we say that vegetables contain fat? Many people believe that vegetables are fat free foods. They are not. As plants grow, they use sunlight, water, and minerals from the soil to manufacture the three basic macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Vegetables, like all other whole plant foods, contain all three of these macronutrients.

The ratio of these macronutrients is different in each plant, but they are always there, and in quantities that sometimes surprise us. We don't find fat free foods in nature, and a fat free diet is not natural. We advocate an oil-free vegan diet, not a fat free vegan diet. Read our page on fat free cooking for tips on how to prepare food without using oil.

We eat mainly low fat whole plant foods. None of them are fat free and we don't want them to be. We just want them to have a reasonably low percent of calories from fat, around 5-15 percent. We even eat small amounts of high fat plant foods, like flax seeds and nuts. 

Fat free foods

Any truly fat free food has been processed to remove the fat, and we try to avoid processed foods. Here is a partial list of fat free foods that would be part of any fat free diet:
  • sugar and other sweeteners

  • refined flours

  • isolated protein powders

  • products made from these ingredients
(Any fat free animal foods, like skim milk, are also highly processed foods.)

The processed plant foods above may lack fat, but they also lack fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other valuable plant nutrients. A fat free diet will not satisfy our hunger or help us lose weight. 

Food companies know that dieters are always looking for fat free foods. The companies tinker with nutrition labels to make a product appear to be fat free when it really contains fat. They do this with "fat free" salad dressings. They call one tablespoon a serving, then they claim that a serving contains 0 grams of fat.

Yes, a dressing could truly be fat free if it contained only water, vinegar, salt, sugar, herbs, spices, and a thickener like guar gum. But if oil is in the ingredient list, the dressing is not fat free. In fact, 100% of the calories may come from fat! This is the reason we always read the list of ingredients, and not just the Nutrition Facts label.

Percent of calories from fat

We usually ignore the grams of fat in a serving of food, because serving sizes can vary a lot. Some serving sizes are large, and some are ridiculously small. Instead, we want to know a constant number: what percent of the calories in a food come from fat. All we need to know to figure this out is that one gram of fat contains approximately 9 calories.

Suppose that a serving of food contains 90 calories. The serving contains one gram of fat. Since one gram of fat contains 9 calories, and 9 divided by 90 is 0.10, our imaginary food is 10% fat.

This does not mean that 10% of the weight of the food is fat. A company or an individual can easily change the weight of a food by adding or subtracting water. It does not change the percent of fat in the product. A classic example of this marketing technique is "2% fat milk", which is 2% fat by weight. It is actually 30% fat by percent of calories.

The percent of fat by weight is useless information. The essential information is the percent of calories from fat.
For more information on calculating the fat content of packaged foods, see our page on reading nutrition labels. But what about foods that don't have nutrition labels?

Foods without nutrition labels

Suppose we want to find the fat content of kale. The easy way is to go to the Nutrition Data website. Their Caloric Ratio Pyramid shows that kale is 12% fat. Scroll down to the "Fats & Fatty Acids" part of their chart, and you will see that a one cup (67 g) serving of kale contains 121 mg of Omega-3 fats and 92.4 mg of Omega-6 fats. Greens contain essential fats!

If you would prefer to do the math yourself, use a calculator and the USDA National Nutrient Database. Again, let's calculate the percent of fat in kale:
  • First we search for kale. We get a number of possible choices.

  • We select raw kale.

  • We choose a 100 gram portion. Any size portion will work.

  • The database gives us a detailed breakdown of the nutrition in raw kale. We are most interested in the first three columns of the top section of the chart, which is labeled "Proximates." This is what it looks like:

Nutrient Units Value per
100 grams
Water g 84.46
Energy kcal 50
Energy KJ 208
Protein g 3.30
Total lipid (fat) g 0.70
Ash g 1.53
Carbohydrate, by difference g 10.01
Fiber, total dietary g 2.0

  • The chart says that 100 grams of kale contain 50 calories (kcal).

  • The total lipid (fat) content in this serving size is 0.70 grams.

  • Remember, one gram of fat contains 9 calories. So, 0.7 grams x 9 = 6.3 calories from fat.

  • Divide 6.3 calories by 50 calories.

  • The result is 0.126. Kale is 12.6% fat.

If you would like to calculate the percent of calories from protein or carbs, use the number 4 instead of 9. There are just 4 calories in a gram of protein or carbohydrate. This explains why fat can be fattening! But don't aim for a fat free diet. Just avoid oil and eat lots of low fat plant foods. Here is more information about planning a low fat vegan diet.

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