Researchers at Harvard University, along with food preparation experts are using muffins to make a point about what they say is the myth that when it comes to diets “low fat is best.”

They say dozens of studies prove low fat diets to be no better than moderate or high fat diets and may even be worse.

Nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health as well as chefs and registered dietitians at The Culinary Institute of America on Friday said they have developed five new muffin recipes that incorporate healthy fats, whole grains, and use less salt and sugar.

(Click here to view the recipes.)

In doing this they explained that they "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.

The researchers said that other low-fat processed foods are not much better, and are often higher in sugar, carbohydrates, or salt than their full-fat counterparts and that the type of fat matters more than the amount of fat as 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 in a released statement.

"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, write the authors.

But now most national chains have eliminated trans fats, so a regular muffin does have heart-healthy fat, usually from soybean or canola oil.

The authors explained that a low-fat muffin has about the same amount of calories, but contains more carbohydrates and sugar and about 60 percent more sodium than a regular muffin.

The CIA and HSPH experts offered some healthy baking tips in making a healthier muffin.

  • 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 percent 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 percent 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.