The role of high-fat diets in weight gain and obesity is assessed by evidence-based principles. Four meta-analyses of weight change occurring on ad libitum low-fat diets in intervention trials consistently demonstrate a highly significant weight loss of 3-4 kg in normal-weight and overweight subjects (P < 0.001).
The analyses also find a dose-response relationship, i.e. the reduction in percentage energy as fat is positively associated with weight loss. Weight loss is also positively related to initial weight; a 10 % reduction in dietary fat is predicted to produce a 4-5 kg weight loss in an individual with a BMI of 30 kg/m2.
The non-fat macronutrient composition of the diet is also important. Whereas the glycaemic index of the carbohydrate may play a role for cardiovascular risk factors, there is so far no evidence that low-glycaemic index foods facilitate weight control.
In contrast, intervention studies show that sugar in drinks is more likely to produce weight gain than solid sugar in foods. Although the evidence is weak, alcoholic beverages promote a positive energy balance, and wine may be more obesity-promoting than beer.
Protein is more satiating and thermogenic than carbohydrates, and one intervention study has shown that an ad libitum low-fat diet where carbohydrate was replaced by protein produced more weight loss after 6 months (8.1 v. 5.9 kg).
The evidence linking particular fatty acids to body fatness is weak. If anything, monounsaturated fat may be more fattening than polyunsaturated and saturated fats, and no ad libitum dietary intervention study has shown that a normal-fat high-monounsaturated fatty acid diet is equivalent or superior to a low-fat diet in the prevention of weight gain and obesity.
The evidence strongly supports the low-fat diet as the optimal choice for the prevention of weight gain and obesity, while the use of a normal-fat high-monounsaturated fatty acid diet is unsubstantiated.
Astrup A, Buemann B, Flint A, Ruben A (2002) Low fat diets and energy balance – how does the evidence stand in 2002? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 61:299-309