Cutting Fat From the Diet? Choosing Low-Fat Substitutes? Think Again


With all the pseudoscience and age-long brainwashing recommending cutting fat from the diet, it’s no surprise to see low-fat (or low–saturated fat) and hydrogenated substitutes flooding the market and making their way into the kitchen.

In the midst of the economies of scale and the rising supply, nobody noticed the rising illness. Worldwide, cardiovascular disease and cancer are the first and second leading causes of death.

World Health Organization’s Key Facts: Cardiovascular Disease
  • Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number 1 cause of death globally: more people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause.
  • An estimated 17.9 million people died from CVDs in 2016, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, 85% are due to heart attack and stroke.
  • Over three quarters of CVD deaths take place in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Out of the 17 million premature deaths (under the age of 70) due to noncommunicable diseases in 2015, 82% are in low- and middle-income countries, and 37% are caused by CVDs.
  • Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioural risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet and obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol using population-wide strategies.
  • People with cardiovascular disease or who are at high cardiovascular risk (due to the presence of one or more risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidaemia or already established disease) need early detection and management using counselling and medicines, as appropriate.
World Health Organization’s Key Facts: Cancer
  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally, and is responsible for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018. Globally, about 1 in 6 deaths is due to cancer.
  • Approximately 70% of deaths from cancer occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Around one third of deaths from cancer are due to the 5 leading behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol use.
  • Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer and is responsible for approximately 22% of cancer deaths (2).
  • Cancer causing infections, such as hepatitis and human papilloma virus (HPV), are responsible for up to 25% of cancer cases in low- and middle-income countries (3).
  • Late-stage presentation and inaccessible diagnosis and treatment are common. In 2017, only 26% of low-income countries reported having pathology services generally available in the public sector. More than 90% of high-income countries reported treatment services are available compared to less than 30% of low-income countries.
  • The economic impact of cancer is significant and is increasing. The total annual economic cost of cancer in 2010 was estimated at approximately US$ 1.16 trillion (4).
  • Only 1 in 5 low- and middle-income countries have the necessary data to drive cancer policy (5).

Interestingly, our dietary choices seem to be adding to this statistic. In the midst of this saturated fats=bad mania, nobody stopped to ask, “is cutting fat really healthy?”

The answer depends on the kind of fats

Cutting Fat Without Cutting the Facts

Hydrogenation: Generating Trans Fats

Let’s understand what makes a low-fat—or a low saturated fat—substitute with a bit of chemistry, shall we? I promise to not saturate you with complexities.

Simply put, hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen is forcibly added to saturate unsaturated fatty acids and disguise them with the same solid look and feel of saturated fats (e.g., butter and ghee), without providing any nutritional value. The altered product is a transformed version of fats, that is, trans fats. The most common example is margarine (butter substitute), straight outta France to butter you up, along with some pretty nifty advertising.

Why Are These Made?

Good question. Hydrogenation makes the end product cheap and easy to store for a long period of time, and that’s is great news for food corporations. These substitutes were also advertised as being better and safer than saturated fats. They were known as “protectors” against cardiovascular disease, a disease for which saturated fats still serve an unjust sentence.

What’s Wrong in That?

I thought you’d never ask. Studies proved that trans fats cause obesity, diabetes, disorders of the nervous system, breast cancer, and (hold on to your knickers for this kicker) cardiovascular disease. Yup, it causes what it was designed to prevent. Here’s your research.

Trans Fats and Saturated Fats: A Clash

A sword can be forged with steel, and it can be cheaply made with aluminium foil. Unsheathed, the swords might even resemble each other. However, which one do you think will help in defending yourself against a broadsword slashing the air to meet your neck?

Think of saturated fats as the steely saviour of your jugular, and think of trans fats and unsaturated fats as the hollow impostors that caused your head to roll.

Rise Above: Know the Difference

Saturated Fats

When it comes to the composition of saturated fats, imagine carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen holding hands and going around the mulberry bush with dance in their feet and a song on their lips. Ahh…life is wonderful and existence full of joie de vivre.

All hands are joined, and the bonds of friendship are completely formed.

Unsaturated Fats

When it comes to the composition of unsaturated fats, imagine the same story but with hydrogen being left out of the group. Call it being mean or hydrogen just preferring to chill solo, not every carbon atom holds hands with hydrogen.

Therefore, the bonds of friendship are not complete. Instead, carbon forms a double bond with another carbon atom.

The more the prevalence of these double bonds, the more unsaturated (unstable) the fat: these are known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs); these are what we must avoid. When you start cutting fat from the diet, start with PUFAs.

One of their many detriments is their ability to turn rancid. In addition, they smoke almost instantly when used as cooking mediums, and studies proved that repeatedly heating cooking oils (in this case, vegetable oil) causes cancer, along with a host of other detrimental effects.

The next time you’re at your favourite halwai/street food vendor, notice the “black oil” in which the food is cooked. Thereafter, cutting fat or deciding which kind of fat to cut would become easier.

Conversely, saturated fats possess none of these double bonds. As cooking mediums, they’re the most stable. As dietary sources of fats, they’re peerless.

Why Are These Harmful Substitutes Bought and Sold

Other than the vested interests of industries aplenty, the following are also contributing factors:


The origin of accusing saturated fats can be traced back to the lipid hypothesis, diet-heart hypothesis, or cholesterol-heart disease hypothesis. This is where the concept of cutting fat from diets took root. The “science” behind these studies was biased, distorted, contradictory, and inconclusive at best.

Cheaper Alternative

Ghee (clarified butter) and sunflower oil have a disparaging price difference. Saturated fats are costlier than unsaturated fats. However, what’s cheaper now will add to medical bills later.

Mass Ignorance

I include my former self in this category. I was simply unaware. Call it buying a product as a direct by-product of misleading advertising. Case in point, margarine advertisements.

Low-Fat or “Low-Fact” Options

It’s best to turn the other way from the oils that look “clear” at room temperature, mostly vegetable and seed oils, with the notable exception of olive oil; its use should be limited to dressing a salad, because it too has a low smoking point.

Smoking Gun

Merely cutting fat isn’t enough. Rather, it is detrimental to cut saturated fats and deprive your body of the dietary fats required to for metabolic processes (I’ve covered them in a different post; check it out) vital for survival.

It’s hard to believe the ramblings and writings of some bloke with a blog. I’d be skeptical too. However, if you’ve humored me thus far, invest bit more time knowing what’s cooking, literally. The answers might just be a revelation, as they have been and continue to be for me. With that, I leave you to find the smoking gun.

Your feedback will always matter

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Rahul Chitrakar View All →

Discovering the nuances of life through the lens of fitness in its myriad expressions


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