Is it possible to combine a low-fat diet and a low-carbohydrate diet into one healthy eating regimen? Are the two diets — which experts say can both be effective for weight loss — compatible? Or, like oil and water, do the two diets not mix well?
Fats and carbs represent two of the three macronutrient groups, which provide structure to cells and energy for the body, says Elana Natker, a registered dietitian based in Oak Hill, Virginia. Macronutrients are also essential for proper brain, nerve, hormone and circulation function and healthy skin.
If you’re following a low-fat and low-carb eating regimen, it’s important to choose lean proteins like white meat chicken or turkey, lean cuts of beef or pork like filet or tenderloin, and fish, says Audra Wilson, a registered dietitian at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. “High-protein, low-fat foods will help to increase satiety without the calorie load of more processed, high-fat proteins like pork sausage, dark chicken or turkey meat with skin. Plant-based sources of protein like tofu also have no saturated fat, an important attribute when considering heart health.”
Examples of high-protein, low-fat foods include:
— Lean meat.
— Lean fish.
— Skinless, lean fowl.
— Beans, peas and lentils.
— Light Greek yogurt.
If you cut out or greatly curtail fats and carbs from your diet, you’ll be eating more protein, says Shreela Sharma, a registered dietitian and a professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health at Houston. “While low-fat, low-carb, high-protein diets may work for weight loss in the short term, they are essentially ‘deprivation diets’ and could have short- and long-term negative health impacts,” Sharma says. Rather than focusing on specific diets, Sharma recommends eating more plant-based foods, whole grains and lean protein sources.
Wilson concurs with Sharma’s eating recommendations. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet could be models you can use to develop a healthy low-carb and low-fat eating regimen, she says. Neither would be considered a low-fat or low-carb diet, but both have frameworks — like eschewing processed foods — that can help you develop a healthy eating regimen lower in fats and carbs, Sharma says. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are consistently rated highly by many registered dietitians. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diets are ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the U.S. News 2020 best diets rankings. (The Flexitarian diet tied with the DASH regiment for the second spot).
The Mediterranean and DASH diets can be helpful in developing a low-fat and low-carb regimen. “They’re just healthy diets,” Wilson says. “They’re not restrictive, they’re sustainable. You won’t feel deprived on these diets.”
While both the Mediterranean and DASH diets contain fats and carbohydrates, the foods you eat under those regimens can be adjusted to reduce both of those macronutrients, she says. “The frameworks of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets provide a great base to work from in designing your ideal diet,” Wilson says.
Adhering to the Mediterranean or DASH diet can allow you to combine a low-fat and low-carbohydrate regimen while getting the nutrition you need, says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia. That’s because both diets emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats, as well as nuts, fish and lean meats and poultry.
Here are the highlights of the Mediterranean and DASH diets:
1. Mediterranean diet. This diet emphasizes consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes and olive oil. Fish and seafood are recommended at least a couple of times a week, and you can have eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation. This diet is low in saturated fat, sugar and red meat. The Mediterranean diet can help ward off a raft of chronic health problems, like diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, many registered dietitians say. It may also help women avoid cardiovascular disease, research suggests.
2. DASH diet. The DASH diet is an acronym that stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension. The eating regimen is promoted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to stop or prevent high blood pressure. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet in the foods it emphasizes: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. These choices are high in nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein and fiber. The DASH diet discourages eating offerings high in saturated fat, like fatty meats, full-fat dairy products and tropical oils. Under this regimen you also should stay away from sugar-sweetened beverages and foods with added sugars.
How to Combine Low-Fat and Low-Carb Diets
If you plan on combining a low-fat and a low-carb diet into one eating regimen, experts recommend these strategies:
— Work with a registered dietitian.
— Define your goals.
— Plan your meals in advance.
1. Work with a registered dietitian. It would be a big challenge for an untrained person to adopt a low-fat and low-carb diet while trying to consume the nutrients he or she needs, Wilson says. Working with a registered dietitian can make following such a regimen much more manageable, she says. A registered dietitian can help you create an eating plan that lowers your fat and carbohydrate intake while ensuring you get the nutrition you need. “Dietitians, we know food,” Wilson says. “We can take foods you currently enjoy and help you modify them or find swaps that you might not think of in order to maintain your diet.” For example, if you’re cutting down on carbs, you might swap cauliflower rice for grain rice.
2. Define your goals. Before you embark on a low-fat, low-carb diet, set specific calorie goals, Wilson says. For example, if you’re an adult male who’s trying to lose weight, you might set a goal of 1,600 calories daily. Since you’ll be getting fewer calories from fats and carbs, you’ll be getting more from protein. Because protein is filling, you may have trouble eating that many calories daily, Wilson says. A registered dietitian can help you devise an eating plan that allows you to consume lower amounts of fats and carbs while adhering to your caloric goals. “Don’t try to do the math on your own,” Wilson says. “We (registered dietitians) are good at that, we’ll do the math.”
3. Plan your meals in advance. Write a weekly menu of your meals, Jones advises. “You won’t have an excuse to run to McDonald’s or pick up a pizza or a bag of chips because you don’t have anything to eat in the house. You won’t have an excuse to make frequent trips to your kitchen because you will be satisfied with the variety of pre-planned high-protein, low-fat food options helping to keep you full throughout the day,” Jones says. It’s particularly a good idea to plan your lunches on working days, because many offices don’t have cafeterias that offer fresh vegetables and fruits and other healthy food. “If you’re at work and haven’t thought about what you’re going to eat, you might get hungry and go to the vending machine,” she says. Many vending machines sell highly processed sugary or salty snacks, but not healthy options.
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Update 04/01/21: This article was previously published and has been updated with new information.