Is a Low-Fat Diet Best for Reducing Cholesterol?

Nutrition Diva weighs in on the debate over low-fat diets.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
2-minute read

Q. I have high cholesterol but I'm trying to avoid taking cholesterol lowering medication. You say that it's not necessary to avoid fat. But elsewhere, I read that I should follow a low-fat diet. I'm confused. Can you elaborate?

A. You're absolutely right that there is a difference of opinion on this subject. Dr. Dean Ornish, for example, promotes an extremely low-fat diet as a way to prevent and even reverse heart disease. And he has an impressive track record of patients who have done very well with his approach. But the Ornish program involves more than just reducing fat. It's a comprehensive approach that also involves diet, exercise, stress management, meditation, and other lifestyle adjustments. While the program appears to be successful, it's really not possible to say how much (if any) of the success is due to the extreme reduction of fat.

On the other hand, there's a very large amount of evidence showing that a diet that's low in saturated fat (the kind in butter, meat, and dairy) but moderate in total fat is the most effective way to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Most people also find this type of diet tastier and easier to stick to—another key to its success.

What does this mean in the real world? Instead of trying to limit your overall fat intake, focus instead on choosing healthy sources of fat, such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados.  Choose leaner cuts of meat and limit your intake of cheese and full-fat dairy to one or two servings a day. Equally important, however, is to limit your intake of added sugar and refined carbohydrates (foods made with white flour).

In a nutshell, I'm describing the Mediterranean diet, a traditional dietary pattern with a very good track record of reducing risk factors for heart disease, as well as a well-deserved reputation for being delicious. 

See also: Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

Image courtesy of Oldways

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.