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A Muffin Makeover: Dispelling the Low-Fat-Is-Healthy Myth

Article / Review by on January 12, 2012 – 8:28 pmNo Comments

A Muffin Makeover: Dispelling the Low-Fat-Is-Healthy Myth
Low-Fat Approach to Eating Hasn’t Reduced Obesity or Made People Healthier
New Recipes for Healthier Muffins Using Whole Grains, Healthy Fats

Low-fat processed foods are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts, according to many studies by the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH./ Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of AmericaLow-fat processed foods are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts, according to many studies by the Harvard School of Public Health. “It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH./ Photo courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America

Boston, MA — Dozens of studies, many from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers, have shown that low-fat diets are no better for health than moderate- or high-fat diets—and for many people, may be worse.

To combat this “low fat is best” myth, nutrition experts at HSPH and chefs and registered dietitians at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) have developed five new muffin recipes that incorporate healthy fats and whole grains, and use a lighter hand on the salt and sugar. Their goal? To “make over” the ubiquitous low-fat muffin, touted as a “better-for-you” choice when in fact low-fat muffins often have reduced amounts of heart-healthy fats, such as liquid plant oils, but boast plenty of harmful carbohydrates in the form of white flour and sugar.

Other low-fat processed foods are not much better, and are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts. For good health, type of fat matters more than amount. Diets high in heavily processed carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

“It’s time to end the low-fat myth,” said Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. “Unfortunately, many well-motivated people have been led to believe that all fats are bad and that foods loaded with white flour and sugar are healthy choices. This has clearly contributed to the epidemic of diabetes we are experiencing and premature death for many. The lesson contained in these healthy muffins—that foods can be both tasty and good for you—can literally be life-saving.”

A regular blueberry muffin from a national coffee shop chain has 450 calories on average and most of those calories come from carbohydrates, primarily white flour and sugar. However, now that national chains have eliminated trans fats, a regular muffin does have heart-healthy fat, usually from soybean or canola oil. A low-fat muffin has about the same amount of calories, but contains more carbohydrates and sugar—and about 60% more sodium (700 milligrams)—than a regular muffin.

The new Blueberry Muffin recipe offered by HSPH and the CIA is less than half the size of a coffee shop muffin and contains just 130 calories. It is made with a mixture of whole wheat, white, and almond flour and uses canola oil, a healthy fat. (See “Blueberry Muffin Battle” for a nutritional comparison of the three types of blueberry muffins.)

See recipes for Blueberry MuffinsCranberry Orange MuffinsJalapeño Cheddar Corn MuffinsLemon Chickpea Breakfast Muffins, and Whole Wheat Banana Nut Muffins.

“There are so many ingredients available to home bakers who want to offer their families healthful, flavorful baked goods,” says Richard Coppedge, Jr., chef-instructor at the CIA and a Certified Master Baker. “These five recipes not only include a wide variety of whole grain and nut flours; they also demonstrate how more unusual ingredients like canned chickpeas and extra virgin olive oil can be used in baking.”

The CIA and HSPH offer a dozen healthy baking tips that professional chefs and home cooks can use to build a healthier muffin. Here are a few of their tips:

  • Downsize the portions. The mega-muffins popular in bake shops are two to three times the size of the muffins your grandmother might have baked.
  • Go whole on the grains. It’s easy to substitute whole wheat flour for 50% of the white flour in recipes without harming taste or texture. And with a few recipe alterations, delicious muffins can be made with 100% whole grains. See the Lemon Chickpea Breakfast Muffin and the Whole Wheat Banana Nut Muffin recipes as examples.
  • Slash the sugar. You can cut 25% of the sugar from most standard muffin recipes without any negative impact on flavor or texture, and in some recipes, cut back even more.
  • Pour on the oil. Liquid plant oils—canola, extra virgin olive oil, corn, sunflower, and others—help keep whole-grain muffins moist and are a healthier choice than melted butter or shortening.
  • Bring out the nuts. For extra protein and an additional source of healthy fats, add chopped nuts.
  • Scale back the salt. The best way to reduce salt is to make a smaller muffin and to pair muffins with foods, such as vegetables and fruits, that are sodium-free.
  • Pump up the produce—and flavor! Fresh whole fruit and unsweetened dried fruit naturally contain sugar, but unlike other sweeteners, they also contain fiber and important nutrients. Using fruit in your muffins means you can have a lighter hand on the added sugar. Cooked or raw vegetables, such as caramelized onions, sliced jalapeños, and chives and other fresh herbs—together with a whole range of spices—can add interesting textures and savory flavors to muffins.

The muffin recipes and photos, baking tips, a Q & A on why it’s time to end the low-fat myth, and a handy chart showing how to find foods with healthy fats are all available on The Nutrition Source, a nutrition website from the Harvard School of Public Health:

“We need to make healthy fats and whole grains the new baking norm, at home and in the professional kitchen,” says Greg Drescher, Vice President of Industry Leadership and Strategic Initiatives for the CIA. “We call on restaurants and other food service providers to be leaders in promoting healthy fats—and in doing away with the low-fat myth.”


Walter Willett Fredrick, John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition  Chair, Department of Nutrition.

Walter Willett
Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition
Chair, Department of Nutrition
Department of Nutrition
Department of Epidemiology
651 Huntington Avenue
Building II Room 311
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
Phone: 617.432.4680

> Other Affiliations
Professor of Medicine, HMS

> Research
Our research primarily involves the investigation of dietary factors, using epidemiologic approaches, in the cause and prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other important conditions. Fundamental to this work has been the development of methods to measure dietary intake in large populations. Thus we have devoted substantial ongoing effort to the creation and refinement of standardized dietary questionnaires that can be completed repeatedly by subjects over a number of years. Such questionnaires have now been demonstrated to provide reasonably accurate assessments of a wide spectrum of dietary factors. In addition, we continue to work on the development and evaluation of biological markers of dietary intake, particularly using plasma and toenail samples. These biological indicators are primarily utilized in nested case-control studies using the large specimen banks collected prospectively as part of our ongoing studies.

The primary studies conducted by our group involve several large ongoing prospective cohorts:

  1. the 121,700-member Nurses’ Health Study, initiated by Dr. Frank Speizer at the Channing Laboratory;
  2. the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a cohort of 52,000 men; and
  3. the Nurses’ Health Study II, a cohort of younger women numbering 116,000

Dietary data have been collected from all of these populations, including seven cycles in the Nurses’ Health Study.

As examples of the relationships we have studied, we have described a positive association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer but no relation with fat intake, a positive association between animal fat and red meat consumption and risk of colon cancer, strong inverse associations between vitamin E consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in both men and women, a positive association between partially hydrogenated vegetable fats and coronary heart disease incidence, and inverse association between intake of calcium and kidney stones. Other endpoints being examined in the study with regard to diet include diabetes, cataracts, glaucoma, gallstones, and other malignancies.

In addition to investigations regarding nutritional factors, we are evaluating relationships between the use of exogenous hormones in the form of oral contraceptives and post-menopausal estrogens to risks of breast cancer and other diseases. Also, other lifestyle factors, such as physical activity, are being examined in relation to occurrence of important diseases.

> Education

M.D., 1970, University of Michigan Medical School
M.P.H. 1973, Harvard School of Public Health
Dr.P.H., 1980, Harvard School of Public Health, Epidemiology
Chair, 1991, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health


> About Culinary Institute of America (CIA)

Founded in 1946, The Culinary Institute of America is an independent, not-for-profit college offering bachelor’s and associate degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts as well as certificate programs in culinary arts, Latin cuisines, and wine and beverage studies. As the world’s premier culinary college, the CIA provides thought leadership in the areas of health & wellness, sustainability, and world cuisines & cultures through research and conferences. The CIA has a network of more than 44,000 alumni that includes industry leaders such as Grant Achatz, Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora, Dan Coudreaut, Steve Ells, Roy Choi, Johnny Iuzzini, Charlie Palmer, and Roy Yamaguchi. In addition to its degree programs, the CIA offers courses for professionals and enthusiasts, as well as consulting services in support of innovation for the foodservice and hospitality industry. The college has campuses in Hyde Park, NY; St. Helena, CA; San Antonio, TX; and Singapore.

For more information, visit the CIA online at


About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History. 

“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

More at Harvard Medical School & Harvard Medical School. Generations of Leaders.

Harvard Medical School. Harvard Medical School (HMS) logo



About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

More at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) & Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). History. Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Logo 540 ok



About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

More About Harvard University & About Harvard University. Information.


*  The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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