Dietary fat is the fat we consume in food (not to be confused with body fat, which is the fat we store in our bodies). Fat is an important and necessary source of energy in our diets.1 With about nine calories per gram, fat offers more than double the calories contained in the equivalent amount of carbohydrate or protein (each of which has four calories per gram). Due to its high calorie content, consuming too much dietary fat can make it easy to go over your total calorie requirement and gain weight.
Dietary Fat vs. Body Fat
The definition of dietary fat is different from that of body fat. Body fat is the excess energy that our bodies store away to use as fuel during times of starvation, protection for your organs, and insulation from the cold. It’s also called adipose tissue and can be stored as subcutaneous fat (under the skin) or visceral fat (around the organs). Having a certain amount of body fat is necessary for survival and good health, but too much body fat can lead to chronic health issues, like diabetes and heart disease.2
The easiest way to define dietary fat, on the other hand, is as the fat that we eat. But just because food contains dietary fat doesn’t mean that it is unhealthy. The right types of dietary fat serve important functions in our bodies. In the same way that overeating carbohydrates or protein will cause the storage of body fat, eating too much dietary fat can lead to excess body fat as well.
Total Fat Definition
Total fat is a measurement of the dietary fat in a packaged food item. When you look at a Nutrition Facts label on food packaging, you’ll see “total fat” indicated at the top of the label, listed just below the calorie count. Total fat is the combined value of the different types of fat, including saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat. Total fat also includes trans fat.
The Different Types of Dietary Fat
While total fat can be a helpful data point, it’s important to distinguish between healthy versus unhealthy fats, rather than just looking at total fat.
The majority of dietary fat that comes from animal sources is saturated fat. Some plant foods like coconut and palm oil also provide saturated fats, but these are a little different from the saturated fats that come from meat products.
Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. Examples of saturated fat include butter, lard, and beef fat. High levels of saturated fat in your diet may increase your risk of heart disease. Health organizations, like the American Heart Association, recommend that you limit your saturated fat intake to less than 7% of your total daily calorie intake. Periodically choosing plant-based options can balance the amount of saturated fat you might be getting from eating meat.
The most dangerous kind of fat is trans fat. Trans fat is found in processed foods. It is a type of fat that has been manufactured to be solid at room temperature. Food manufacturers must list trans fat on food labels. Scan the ingredients list for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” to identify trans fats that are hiding in your food.
Because trans fats provide no health benefits and can be dangerous to your health, medical experts recommend that you try to avoid foods with trans fat altogether. Limiting the number of processed foods you eat and staying away from fried foods will help you reduce your trans fat intake.
Often called “MUFAs,” monounsaturated fats are known as the “good fats.” These healthy dietary fats come from plant sources like olives, nuts, and avocados. They are usually liquid at room temperature. MUFAs are beneficial because they can help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, whereas saturated and trans fats raise LDL. Experts at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that you choose foods higher in monounsaturated fat, instead of saturated fat and trans fats, whenever possible.5 For example, you might replace lard with avocado or olive oil when you cook.
Another form of healthy fat is polyunsaturated fat, or PUFAs. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that provide a number of health benefits. For that reason, health experts recommend that you get 3% to 10% of your daily calories from PUFAs. Good sources of polyunsaturated fat include salmon, tuna, sardines, and other cold-water fish. Walnuts and chia seeds also provide heart-healthy PUFAs.
Should I Reduce My Total Fat Intake?
Many healthy eaters are confused about whether to focus on reducing their total fat intake. That’s because the answer isn’t necessarily straightforward. Reducing one macronutrient (in this case, fat) may cause an increase in another macronutrient (such as carbohydrates). Removing the fat from your diet, only to replace it with sugar, for example, isn’t going to do your health any favors. In the end, it’s the balance and the quality of your diet that matters most.
Is Dietary Fat Bad for Me?
The dietary fat that you consume is either burned by your body as fuel or stored in your body as adipose tissue. Some fat is also contained in plasma and other cells or used to manufacture important things in our bodies, like hormones. Adipose tissue helps insulate the body and provides support and cushioning for organs.
People trying to lose weight might be tempted to avoid dietary fat because it is higher in calories than carbohydrates or protein. However, eating dietary fat in moderation is important for good health. Dietary fat can help you feel more full and satisfied after your meal, which can help you consume fewer calories overall if you pay attention to your hunger signals.
How Much Total Fat Should I Consume?
Many experts recommend that your diet provides no more than 30% of total calories from fat.7 Depending on your daily calorie intake, your recommended daily fat grams will vary.
- If you eat 1,600 calories per day, you should consume about 53 grams of fat
- If you eat 2,200 calories per day, you should consume about 73 grams of fat
- If you eat 2,800 calories per day, you should consume about 93 grams of fat
In addition, the USDA recommends that you consume no more than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fat and that you avoid trans fat.
The quality of the dietary fat you consume is important. Choose a diet filled with natural, heart-healthy fats, and balance your intake with regular physical activity.