What Is a Fat-Restricted Diet?
Medically Reviewed by Kelly Kennedy, RD
Last Updated: 2/20/2020
On a fat-restricted diet, what fats you do eat should come from plant sources.
Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy; Everyday Health
A fat-restricted diet is an eating plan that limits the amount of fat you can consume each day. It is a medical diet often used to help control symptoms for people who have certain digestive conditions or problems with nutrient absorption, says Amanda Lynett, RDN, a gastrointestinal dietitian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Should I Follow a Fat-Restricted Diet?
This diet may be prescribed for certain conditions that make it difficult for the body to digest fat, such as chronic pancreatitis , gallbladder disease or removal, or gastroparesis. ( 1 , 2 , 3 )
“Fat takes more time to digest, so it can sit in the stomach and cause symptoms like cramping, bloating, nausea , and diarrhea [in these populations],” says Lynett. Restricting fat, therefore, makes the digestive process more comfortable.
This type of diet may also be recommended following surgeries involving the lymphatic system. The goal in restricting fat is to prevent what’s called a chyle leak. Chyle is “a milky looking fluid that contains lymphatic fluid and fat and is produced in the small intestine during digestion,” according to UWHealth. ( 4 PDF) It’s carried in the lymphatic system, and restricting fat post-surgery helps your body produce less chyle, decreasing the risk of a leak and improving the likelihood of healing, UWHealth says.
Another reason you may be on a fat-restricted diet is if you have heart disease , high cholesterol , or high triglycerides (fats in the blood); less commonly these days, it may also be recommended to prevent weight gain for some people, says Kristen Gradney, RDN , a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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Fat-Restricted Diet Basics
Usually, a fat-restricted diet limits fat intake to less than 50 grams (g) per day. Fat contains nine calories per gram. So, if you need a total of 2,000 calories per day, this means that only about 22 percent of those calories can be from fat. The rest should be from carbohydrate or protein . That said, the specific number recommended for you will largely depend on your size and calorie needs, says Lynett. The reason you’re following this type of diet may also play a role.
The Difference Between a Low-Fat and a Fat-Restricted Diet
"Fat-restricted" and "low-fat" are different terms for the same thing and are often used interchangeably, even in medical settings, says Gradney. Often, low-fat diets are proposed as a type of weight loss diet, while fat-restriction is used as a diet to control symptoms of a medical condition.
Eating Guide for a Fat-Restricted Diet
Below you’ll find some general direction for the foods you'll focus on if you're following a fat-restricted diet.
Limit Fat Consumption
This means limiting your intake of saturated and trans fats, which are found in animal sources like meat and dairy, says Lynett, and in processed foods like cake, cookies, and potato chips. And you'll avoid adding fats such as butter or margarine to your foods.
Be Strategic if You Eat Meat
Choose leaner sources of protein, like skinless chicken , turkey breast, or pork loin, recommends Gradney. Legumes like beans, lentils, and dried peas are great vegetarian sources of protein, and they also contain heart-healthy fiber , she says.
Focus on Healthy Fats
Whenever possible, opt for sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like olive oil or avocado (though still in limited amounts). “These help lower both inflammation and cholesterol,” says Lynett.
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Consider Restricting Your Nut Intake
If you are on a fat-restricted diet for a digestive condition, you will want to limit nut and nut butter to 1 ounce per day (or the equivalent of 1 tablespoon for nut butters). “Nuts are really easy to overeat, so it’s important to watch your portions,” says Lynett. If you choose to eat nut butter, limit your consumption of other fats to keep your total intake down.
Fuel Up With Plants
Increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, which are foods that are naturally lower in fat, says Gradney.
Minimize Consumption of Packaged Food
Though this tactic is not specific to a fat-restricted diet, you’re best off avoiding refined foods or those high in simple sugars, like white bread, snack foods, and crackers. Even if they are labeled low-fat, these foods are converted into sugar in your body. “These will increase your triglyceride levels. While you may not be directly ingesting fat, these foods will contribute to elevating the [unhealthy] fats in your blood,” says Gradney.
Soda is high in calories and sugar, so it’s not the healthiest choice on a fat-restricted diet or any healthy diet, for that matter. Try one of these alternative refreshing beverages.
Suggestions on Eating a Fat-Restricted Diet
Read Food Labels Carefully
Lynett recommends looking for the following key phrases on food labels when grocery shopping: low-fat, nonfat, and fat-free. Foods that use nonfat/fat-free or similar labels are required to contain less than 0.5 g of fat per labeled serving, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). ( 5 ) Those that are low-fat have 3 g or less of fat. Reduced fat, however, doesn’t guarantee something is low in fat or is appropriate for your diet; these foods simply must have 25 percent less fat than their original version.
Don’t Eat Too Much Fat at Once
Spread your fat intake throughout the day, advises Lynett. “Saving up” fat for one meal can lead to uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, the exact thing you may be looking to prevent with this diet.
Avoid Fried and Sautéed Foods
Use low-fat cooking methods, such as baking, roasting, broiling, poaching, grilling, boiling, or steaming.
Select Lean Cuts of Meat
Loin and round are examples. “If you can see fat around the meat or marbling, that’s a cut you probably shouldn’t be eating,” says Gradney.
Ask Your Doctor About MCT Oil
For some patients, Lynett might recommend using MCT oil, which stands for medium-chain triglycerides. This type of fat easily absorbs into your bloodstream through your stomach, which means it doesn’t require pancreatic enzymes to break it down, she explains. Therefore, it can be a useful addition to your diet if you have a GI condition, as well as if you’re trying to gain weight. A paper in Practical Gastroenterology published in February 2017 suggests guidelines for using MCT oil: Avoid consuming more than 4 to 7 tablespoons daily, divide the dose evenly between meals, and mix it into foods and beverages for palatability and to make it easier to take. ( 6 PDF)
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Also, Ask About Prescription Pancreatic Enzymes
If you have a pancreatic condition, you may need to take additional prescription pancreatic enzymes, says Lynett. Ask your physician if these are recommended for you.
Be Mindful of Potential Nutrient Deficiencies
A long-term fat-restricted diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies , especially when it comes to the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D, and K, says Lynett. She recommends patients undergo bloodwork to check on nutrient levels once per year. You may also be advised to take a fast-dissolving or chewable multivitamin, which tends to be better absorbed by those with digestive disease, she says.
Remember Your ‘Why’
Keep in mind the reason you’re doing a fat-restricted diet in the first place, because this, like all diet changes, can be tough to stick with. For instance, if you’re on it for gallbladder disease, you have to keep in mind that deviations from the diet — say, eating a special high-fat meal for a holiday — may leave you in physical pain, says Gradney.
Take Control of Your Food
“Some patients feel stuck when they go out to eat because they have no idea what they can order,” says Gradney. Ask how things are prepared and then request accommodations, for example: "Please don’t butter the bun on my sandwich."
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One Last Thing About Following a Fat-Restricted Diet
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of overhauling your eating habits, especially if your doctor has recommended a fat-restricted diet. “The best advice is to be aware of why you’re on a fat-restricted diet, which will help guide your food choices,” says Gradney. The key is knowing what fats are healthiest for your condition. “Overall, restricting saturated and trans fats will be more beneficial than cutting out almonds and avocado. That means skipping the snack cakes and going for a little guacamole,” she says.
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