The “Low-Fat” Craze of the ’80s Made America Fat

Subject: Nutrition
Pages: 6
Words: 1699
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: College


Human beings have over the last century demonstrated a desire to attain and maintain the ideal body weight with minimum effort. This desire has in part been fueled by the observation by nutritionists and health care professionals that body weight has significant health implications. Being overweight has numerous negative health effects and it is linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes. The mental health of an individual is also negatively affected by obesity since it increases the risk of depression. Policymakers have therefore endeavored to ensure that the citizens of the country maintain proper weight. In the US, this has been achieved by carrying out research and making health recommendations to the public. In the 1980s, the recommendation made to the public by nutritionists was that fat was the major cause of obesity and heart diseases. People were therefore encouraged to consume products that had a low-fat content. This led to the establishment of the low-fat craze of the ’80s which resulted in millions of Americans adopting diets that had little or no fat. This paper will argue that the low-fat diet promoted in the 1980s led to more Americans becoming fat since it increased carbohydrate consumption and promoted poor lifestyles among individuals.

An Overview of the Low-fat Craze

The low-fat craze of the 1980s can trace its origins to the general affluence of post-World War II America. The US experienced significant economic growth in the years following the end of the Second World War. Over the ’50s and ’60s, the income level of many people increased and the standards of living went up. Over this period, the fast-food industry developed and experienced significant growth. Most of the food products provided by this industry were high in fats and sugars. A study commissioned by the governed during the late ’60s revealed that fat-rich fast foods were responsible for the growing level of obesity among Americans (Elmer-Dewitt 12). This revelation led to a promotion of low-fat intake as a solution to the fatness problem that the US was experiencing. The earmarking of fat as the biggest contributor to obesity in the 1980s promoted the low-fat craze aimed at improving health.

Low-fat Craze caused Weight Gain

The low-fat diet promoted in the ’80s focused too much on food intake and mostly ignored the impact that lifestyle has on weight gain. Due to the underlying assumption that a person could not get fat from consuming low-fat or fat-free foods, people ate these products in excess with little consideration of the calories contained in the foods (Elmer-Dewitt 12). If a person is unwilling to engage in some form of exercising, then he or she must be willing to consume very small amounts of food. The low-fat craze did not highlight this important fact to Americans and people disregarded exercising since they thought that the low-fat diet was sufficient.

The low-fat craze led to the decline in consumption of healthy fats that actually used to promote weight loss. Before the 1980s, measures had been taken to replace the unhealthy saturated fats with healthy polyunsaturated fats that could help reduce heart disease rates. However, the low-fat craze of the 80s did not differentiate between the different kinds of fats (Hafner 95). The message given to Americans was that they should reduce all kinds of fats. People were, therefore, unable to obtain the advantages that the good fats provided the body. Research indicates that polyunsaturated fats, found mostly in grain products like flax, seafood, soybeans, and fish oil have positive effects on cholesterol and are linked directly to the promotion of fat loss (Lisk 48). Nutritionists agree that fats are an essential part of the diet since they serve as important sources of fuel for the body. Without the essential fats that are obtained from sources such as eggs, avocados, flax, and salmon, the body is unable to produce the fuel needed to burn the body fat (Westman 277). By discouraging the consumption of all fats including the healthy fat-loss-promoting fats, the low-fat craze contributed to weight gain among many people.

Due to this craze, the food industry engaged in the production of low-fat and fat-free products that were then sold to consumers. These new products were made by substituting fats with sugars and carbohydrates to create fat-free products that in an actual sense had as many calories as the high-fat products. Hafner warns that low-fat foods are loaded with sweeteners that increase the caloric content of the meals (95). However, the consumers assumed that the low-fat products were healthy and could not make them fat. This assumption was misguided since a person has to reduce his/her total caloric intake is he wants to reduce his weight (Westman 277). Engaging in dietary practices that reduce fat intake while maintaining or even increasing the caloric intake results in an overall gain in body weight. The consumers therefore indulged in the low-fat products without knowing that the foods had the potential of making them fat.

The low fat diet led to individuals being less satisfied with their meals and this encouraged them to eat more. They therefore ended up consuming more calories than they would have if they had included sufficient fats in their meals. This circumstance occurred since fats have a higher satiety factor than carbohydrates or proteins. Research indicates that a high-fat diet leads to greater satisfaction and the individual does not feel food deprived. The low-fat diet increases food consumption and this in turn caused people to be overweight.

The low-fat craze of the 80s assumed that the trigger for this fat-storage defect was the quantity of calories contained in food. Since fats contain the highest units of calories per gram, it was assumed that reducing or completely doing away with these foods would manage the fuel-partitioning problem responsible for obesity. However, the carbohydrates used to replace fats are triggers for fat-storage defects in the body. Taubes argues that obesity is a “fat storage defect” that is caused by the inability of the body to properly partition the calories consumed for either energy or to be stored as fats (par. 5). The highly refined and easily digestible carbohydrates stimulate insulin secretion and this promotes fat storage in the body.

The popularity of low-fat foods led to the omission of fats from many products. However, the fats had been responsible for giving food its appealing taste. The low-fat foods were therefore bland and unappealing to many people. Kuhn reveals that in an attempt to improve the flavor of the fat-free products, food companies added more sugar and carbohydrates to their products (96). The products used included refined carbohydrates like sugar, flour, and high-fructose corn syrup. These sugars, used to give the fat-free food flavor, promoted obesity. Scientists have shown that when sugar is ingested, it stimulates the release of insulin leading to reactions that cause the fat-storing hormones in the body to overact (Kuhn 97). This food was then marketed as healthy foods and people assumed that they were practicing “healthy eating” by consuming these products.

Defense of the Low-Fat Craze

Arguments have been made that the low-fat craze of the 80’s helped alleviate the weight problem for individuals who followed the diet as prescribed. The low-fat diet was prescribed in an attempt to deal with the problems that the unhealthy fats contained in fast foods were causing in Americans. The rationale was that since fat has a higher calorific content, people would be consuming fewer calories by avoiding fat content. This view is supported by the fact that fats contain 9 calories per gram while proteins and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram (Lisk 48). The low-fat craze of the 80s was therefore scientifically sound since a person will gain more weight if they take an equal portion of fatty food as opposed to non-fat foods due to the high caloric content per gram of fat compared to proteins or carbohydrates.

Suggestions have been made that the obesity problem facing the US since the 80s was not caused or exacerbated by the low-fat craze. On the contrary, arguments have been made that the huge lifestyle changes by many Americans contributed to the increase in average weight of individuals. Over the 1980s, Americans started indulging more in sedentary activities (Elmer-Dewitt 13). More people stopped taking part in activities such as sports and instead watched TV or played video games. These lifestyles promoted weight gain in the individual. While it is true that lifestyle changes contributed to the weight problem experienced by Americans over the 80s, the low-fat craze made the situation worse by creating the illusion that exercising was not necessary for one to avoid getting fat.


By the early 1990s, people in the US had come to the realization that the low-fat diet was not effective. The increase in obesity prevalence, even as more people engaged in low-fat diets, suggested that this strategy was not working. As a result, the 90s were characterized by a rise in low-carbohydrate diets to help alleviate the obesity problem. This low-carb strategy has continued to characterize popular dieting regimes up to date. Even so, the perception that low-fat foods are healthy and do not cause obesity persisted among many Americans. This led to poor dietary practices that led to a prevalence in obesity rates.


This paper set out to argue that the low-fat craze of the 1980s led to more people gaining weight, rather than losing it, due to the high level of carbohydrates consumed and the lack of exercising. The paper began by explaining how the low-fat craze developed following the discovery of the negative effects of fat on a person’s health. This craze led to the food industry replacing their products with low-fat products that were marketed as healthy. The paper has noted how the low-fat craze led to dietary misinformation and distracted Americans from addressing the key causes of obesity including sedentary lifestyles. The evidence given demonstrates that while the low-fat craze led to a dramatic reduction in the level of fat consumed by American’s, the gains made were offset by an increase in carbohydrate consumption. The 80s low-fat craze therefore resulted in American’s getting fatter even as they consumed more low-fat products.

Works Cited

Elmer-Dewitt, Philip and Horowitz Janice. “Fat Times.” Time 145.2 (1995): 11-15. Print.

Hafner, Patrick. The Ounces Countdown Weight Loss Approach. Ontario: Birchbark Publishing, 2010. Print.

Kuhn, Robert. Return to Health: Overcoming the Unimaginable and Beating the Odds. NY: Balboa Press, 2012. Print.

Lisk, Matt. The Burrito Diet. Oklahoma: The Burrito Diet, 2009. Print.

Taubes, Gary. “What Really Makes us Fat.” The New York Times. 2012.

Westman, Eric. “Low-carbohydrate Nutrition and Metabolism.” Am J Clin Nutr 88.2 (2007): 276-284. Print.