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Why the Fat-Free Foods Movement Failed

Published by Dr. Venn-Watson
Dr. Eric Venn-Watson’s Highlights

If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, you’re probably very well acquainted with the fat-free diet fad. Fat-free diets began in the late seventies, but grew in popularity in the 80s and 90s with the emergence of fat-free convenience foods.

Popular brands of snack cakes and cookies that substituted refined carbohydrates and sugar in place of fat led dieters to consume more, all the while thinking that avoiding fat was keeping them healthier. 

Over-consumption of these fat-free snacks led nutritionists to dub the phenomenon the Snackwell Effect, named after a popular brand of fat free cookies. Even though the cookies were fat free, the refined carbohydrates and sugar content were crippling to our health.

What happened to the American diet, and to the American waistline? We’ll cover how we’ve found ourselves in the middle of a seemingly uncontrollable epidemic, what we’ve learned from it, and what we can do to change the course of our health and wellness. 

How Did It Start?

The journey to fat free foods diets began in the 1970s. Americans were dying due to heart disease. 

Prior to the 1970s, pre-packaged foods, TV dinners, and “convenience” items were increasing in popularity. At the same time, America was experiencing an economic boom that allowed middle class families to enjoy more of these types of meals. 

Instead of eating home-cooked meals prepared from fresh fruits and vegetables, we were turning to fast food. Instead of buying what we needed, we began to buy foods we wanted, like cakes, colas, and cookies, and we were doing it regularly.  

The boom in convenience foods made us sick, and after years of debate and discussion, the federal government stepped in. 

In 1977, the government released Dietary Goals for the United States, which gave dietary advice to more than 220 million Americans. 

The guidelines stated that: 

  • The diet was foundational in promoting health and wellness, and it played a crucial role in helping people avoid certain illnesses and diseases, like heart disease.
  • Decreasing caloric intake to match caloric output; in other words, only eat as many calories as you will burn off.
  • Avoid fat. Which fats? All of them. High cholesterol was directly linked to heart disease, and it was thought that avoiding all fat would help lower cholesterol numbers and keep us safe from heart disease. 

Thus, the fat-free revolution began, and the war on heart disease was seemingly in full swing. 

Unfortunately, curing us of heart disease didn’t happen. Here’s what did. 

What Went Wrong

After the release of the 1977 dietary guidelines, Americans took note. 

Over the next twenty years, we avoided fat. Whole milk, once common in every fridge, was replaced by skim milk, a watered down version of whole milk with less nutritional value. Butter was taken off the table. Fattier cuts of red meat were replaced with poultry. 

Fat-free products, like those fat-free cookies, exploded in popularity. It seemed the key to eating healthfully was simply switching to foods that didn’t contain fat, even if over-consumption of those foods meant packing in empty, excessive calories. 

Prepared foods that are not naturally fat-free were formulated with refined carbohydrates. We ate those foods and trans fats, which at the time were thought to be safer for our hearts. 

By the late 1990s, our health had not improved. In fact, it had gotten worse: 

  • Dramatic rises in childhood obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease made our kids sick, lethargic, and at risk of early death.
  • Life expectancy decreased.
  • Our risk for developing metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and excess weight) increased. This increased our chances of developing heart disease and stroke. 

Avoiding fat had not fixed the problem with our diets, and we were sicker than ever. 

What We Learned

By 2014, it was blatantly obvious that our dietary guidelines were no longer helping us, they were harming us. In an article published in the 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers suggested that eating less saturated fat did not lower a person’s risk of heart disease. 

We had gotten it wrong. Fat wasn’t killing us — over-consumption of calories, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and certain fats were the things making us sick. Not all fat was bad, and the decrease in the good fats had taken its toll on our health. 

The Reemergence of the Omegas

Over 90 years ago, a husband and wife team discovered the omega fatty acids, which they concluded to be essential for our bodies. An essential fatty acid means that our body needs it to function properly, but cannot make it on its own. As such, we have to get it from our diets. 

The omega fatty acids (omega-3, omega-6) reemerged in the wake of the fat-free revolution as the heroes. It appeared that omega-3 in particular could help support healthy heart function. Omega-6 fatty acids were also an important part of our diets, but over-consumption of them could lead to the same unwanted health markers we were already experiencing. 

Still, we were on the right track. Fat was no longer the enemy.

Research Gets Fatty

After fats were jailbroken, research on other fatty acids began to make waves. In particular, research on odd-chain, saturated fatty acids present in dolphins’ fish-based diets were proving to be of interest. 

Researchers studying two separate populations of bottlenose dolphins found that dolphins with higher circulating levels of an odd-chain saturated fatty acid, pentadecanoic acid (also known as C15:0), had a lower risk of developing aging-related health conditions. 

Interestingly, age-related conditions that the dolphins with low C15:0 developed are precursors to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke in humans. 

What was the difference? One population of dolphins ate fish that contained higher levels of C15:0 compared to the other population. 

When dolphins low in C15:0 were provided fish high in C15:0, their levels of this fatty acid increased, they became healthier, and so did their cells.

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C15:0 for Humans

The great thing about bottlenose dolphins is that they’re a lot like us. They live for a long time, interact with one another socially, and are intelligent. They also experience age-related conditions like we do. 

By studying C15:0 in dolphins, we now know that this fatty acid is potentially the first essential fatty acid to have been discovered since the omegas, more than 90 years ago. But, there’s a catch. 

C15:0 is found only in trace amounts in fish and whole fat dairy products, like whole milk and butter. Chances are, you may not be getting much of it in your diet. Additionally, whole fat dairy products contain much higher levels of even-chain saturated fatty acids, like C16:0, that continue to be associated with poor health.

We need a way to get the good, healthy C15:0 our bodies need without the bad fats we don’t. 

Fatty15 is the breakthrough supplement that does the job. Fatty15 contains FA15™, the vegan, pure, powder form of  C15:0 in a once-a-day, easy to take capsule. 

With fatty15, you can help support your health at the cellular level.* Fatty15 is the good fat your body needs to keep healthy.†*

Fatty15 helps support your body by:†* 

  • Strengthening cell walls. As we get older, our cells age, becoming fragile and weak. Fatty15 is a sturdy fatty acid, digging deep into cell membranes, fortifying them and keeping them strong. 
  • Boosting mitochondrial function. When we get older, our mitochondrial function begins to decline, which can decrease cellular energy and allow for increased cellular stress. Fatty15 helps repair mitochondrial function, helping our cells function better and stronger.
  • Balancing our immunity. Getting older can cause our immunity to become unbalanced, leaving us susceptible to overactive immune responses. Fatty15 interacts with receptors in our bodies that regulate immunity and help to balance our immune systems. 
  • Supporting a healthy metabolism. We all know that the older you get, the slower it seems your metabolism functions. Fatty15 helps support healthy metabolism by binding to PPAR receptors in our bodies that regulate metabolism. 

When our metabolism functions properly, that can help support a healthy weight and better blood sugar levels. 

The Takeaway

The fat-free foods diet fad had good intentions at its roots, but it didn’t save us from heart disease or make us healthier. 

Eliminating fats from our diets had a devastating effect on our health as a nation, but we now have the research and the science to make dietary changes, protect our cells, increase our health, and save future generations from negative health markers. 

Not all fat is bad, and now that we know this, we can support our bodies by taking fatty15, a simple, odd-chain, saturated fatty acid that helps keep our bodies functioning their best at the cellular level.†* 


Products - Data Briefs - Number 360 - February 2020|CDC 

Dietary goals for the United States - NALDC 

Is Butter Really Back? | Harvard Public Health Magazine | Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health 

An Essential Debate|ASBM 

Profile photo for Eric Venn-Watson

Eric Venn-Watson M.D.

Eric is a physician, U.S. Navy veteran, and Co-founder and COO of Seraphina Therapeutics. Eric served over 25 years as a Navy and Marine Corps physician, working with the special forces community to improve their health and fitness. Seraphina Therapeutics is a health and wellness company dedicated to advancing global health through the discovery of essential fatty acids and micronutrient therapeutics.

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