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Mississippi State University Extension Service dietitians suggest eating more fruits and vegetables in recognition of Natural Fat-Free Living Month in January. (File photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kevin Hudson)

Avoid diets that forgo necessary components

MSU Extension Service

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Losing weight and getting in shape are among the most common New Year’s resolutions, so it is no surprise that many health-oriented organizations recognize January as National Fat-Free Living Month.

Literally living fat-free, however, is impossible, said Brent Fountain, associate professor of human nutrition with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. A certain amount of fat is needed, as it is a primary source of energy and cushions organs and tissues in the body to protect them, he said.

Attempting to eliminate all fat is also not a healthy way to diet, Fountain said. Regulating the types and amount of fat in a diet is a better way to lose weight.

Fats can be classified as saturated fats, trans fats and unsaturated fats. Fountain said people should limit how many saturated and trans fats they consume.

“Somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of our calories should come from fats,” Fountain said. “We should try to limit saturated fat intake to 10 percent or less of our diet.”

When National Fat-Free Month was established is unclear, but Fountain said the fat-free movement stemmed from the search for a different weight-loss strategy in the 1990s. Information and research at the time concluded that a fat-free diet was the best way to lose unwanted pounds. In response, the food production industry sought to replace the fat in many foods with simple sugars. People thought the “fat-free” foods could be eaten in excess without causing weight gain.

“The problem with that is you’re not changing the amount of calories in food,” Fountain said. “The result wasn’t a reduction in calories and, in many cases, was an increase in overall caloric intake. When we take in more calories than our body needs or can expend, our body stores them as fat. Eating too much carbohydrate and protein leads to the same result as too much fat.”

Some people may not realize, he said, that at nine calories per gram, fat is denser than protein and carbohydrate, which contain four calories per gram. The extra calories in fat can make a person feel fuller quicker, which may actually lead to consuming fewer total calories.

Carol Ball, a dietitian with the MSU Extension Service, said keeping variety in the diet is more important than eliminating any food group or nutrient. She suggested that dieters incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their daily routines but avoid completely eliminating any normal components of a diet.

“Fats, proteins and carbs all serve roles in our diet,” Ball said. “To have a fat-free diet, a carb-free diet or protein-free diet is not ideal. All those macronutrients should be represented in healthy amounts in our diets. I think what’s important is to make sure that when we choose fat, most of it comes from a heart-healthy source. Good fats anyone should have in their diet regardless of whether they intend to lose weight are omega-3 foods, such as eggs and fish. I always go back to the hallmarks of good nutrition: variety and moderation.”

Fountain said people resolving to eat healthier or lose weight are more likely to do so if they have tangible short- and long-term goals in mind at the onset. He said goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed.

“Most of the time, people start with lofty long-term goals,” he said. “If they don’t reach their goals within a short amount of time, they give up. Record what you eat when you eat it. That will give you a good sense of how many calories you’re taking in. You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

After tracking normal intake, dieters should make necessary adjustments based on what they’re eating too much of or not enough of. One tool that can be used to record food intake is the SuperTracker at

Nutrition is only half the equation, Fountain added. Being physically active is mandatory for people who are serious about reaching their target.

“Not everybody likes to jog, but there are other things you can do,” he said. “Look around and see what physical activities you think you would enjoy and give them a try.”

Reaching a weight-loss goal is cause for celebration, Fountain added, but reverting to old eating habits once a target weight is reached hurts a person’s chances of maintaining his or her ideal weight. Dieting and exercise should be lifelong commitments and not temporary means to an end, he said.

“You want to get out of the habit of yo-yo dieting where you try to lose a bunch of weight and then you gain it back when you go back to regular eating habits,” Fountain said. “That has a negative effect on your metabolism. Having additional goals beyond weight loss is a more healthy and holistic approach. What you see on the scale should just be one part of the equation in improving your overall quality of life.”

Released: January 14, 2015
Contacts: Dr. Brent Fountain
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