Dietary Fat

What counts as fat? Are some fats better than other fats? While fats are essential for normal body function, some fats are better for you than others. Trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol are less healthy than polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

How much total dietary fat do I need?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommend that Americans:

  • Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fats.
  • Replace solid fats with oils when possible.
  • Limit foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fatty acids (such as hydrogenated oils), and keep total trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.
  • Eat fewer than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.
  • Reduce intake of calories from solid fats.
Age Group Total Fat Limits
Children ages 2 to 3 30% to 40% of total calories
Children and adolescents ages 4 to 18 25% to 35% of total calories
Adults, ages 19 and older 20% to 35% of total calories

 

Quick Q& A
If some fats are healthier than others, can I eat as much of these fats as I want?
No, it’s best to keep your total fat intake between 20 and 35% of your total calories each day.

Know your limits on fats. You can meet this recommendation by following a healthy eating plan that meets your needs. MyPlate.gov has personalized plans that will provide your daily allowance of oils and solid fats, based on your age, gender, height, weight, and physical activity level.

 

Trans Fat

Download Trans Fat: The Facts  [PDF–2.1Mb]

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and the Institute of Medicine recommend that individuals keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible.1, 2 There are two main sources of dietary trans fatty acids (trans fat). Naturally occurring trans fat is found in small amounts in the fatty parts of meat and dairy products. Artificial trans fat comes from foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil and is formed when hydrogen is added to liquid oil turning it into solid fat. Often food manufacturers use artificial trans fat in food products because it is inexpensive and it increases the food’s shelf life, stability, and texture.

Consuming trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol. This risk factor contributes to the leading cause of death in the U.S. – coronary heart disease (CHD).1 Trans fat may also have other adverse health effects like decreasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol. Further reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S.3

Trans fat intake has significantly decreased in the US as a result of efforts to increase awareness of its health effects, Nutrition Facts label changes, industry efforts to voluntarily reformulate foods, and some state and local governments’ restriction of its use in restaurants and other food service outlets. However, on average Americans still consume 1.3 grams (0.6% of energy) of artificial trans fat each day.4 Major contributors to artificial trans fat intake include fried items, savory snacks (like microwave popcorn), frozen pizzas, cake, cookies, pie, margarines and spreads, ready-to-use frosting, and coffee creamers. The amount of trans fat can vary among similar food categories.

The amount of trans fat can vary within food categories4

Food category Range of trans fat per serving (g)
Margarine and spreads 0.0-3.0 g
Cookies 0.0-3.5 g
Frozen pies 0.0-4.5 g
Frozen pizza 0.0-5.0 g
Savory Snacks 0.0-7.0 g

Trans fat are also found in restaurant and cafeteria foods that contain or are prepared with partially hydrogenated oil. Currently, only about 1 in 5 Americans (20 percent) lives where there are policies that limit the use or sale of foods that contain more than 0.5 grams of artificial trans fat per serving.5

What Can Be Done To Reduce Artificial Trans Fat


Everyone can:

  • Read the Nutrition Facts label and ingredient list to compare foods.
    • Choose products with 0 grams trans fat.Sample Nutritional Food Label
    • Check the Ingredient List to see if there is any partially hydrogenated oil in the product.
    • Because products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as having 0 grams trans fat, checking the Ingredient List is important to avoid all artificial trans fat.
  • When choosing foods low in trans fat, make sure they are also low in saturated fat and cholesterol: look for foods with 5% of the Daily Value or less. Foods with 20% or more of the Daily Value of these two components are high.
  • Use monounsaturated fat (canola and olive oil) and polyunsaturated fat (soybean, corn, and sunflower oil) in recipes that call for fat.
  • A good way to avoid trans fat is to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
  • Ask your grocer to stock products free of “partially hydrogenated oil” and “shortening”.
  • Talk with your favorite restaurant establishment about current use of partially hydrogenated oils or changing to a menu that is 100% free of “partially hydrogenated oil” and “shortening”.
  • Choose restaurants that do not use partially hydrogenated oil to prepare food.

Restaurants and Cafeterias can:

  • Change their frying and cooking oils to ones that do not contain any partially hydrogenated oil.
  • Ask suppliers to provide products that do not contain partially hydrogenated oil and are low in saturated fat.
  • Promote partially hydrogenated oil-free, and low saturated fat, items on the menu.

Food Producers and Processors can:

  • Continue to reformulate products to remove partially hydrogenated oil by increasing the use of mono- and polyunsaturated fats as replacements.
  • Find innovative ways to remove partially hydrogenated oil, without increasing saturated fat, from baked goods, frosting, and other products that currently contain significant amounts of trans fat.

State and Local Governments can:

  • Increase public awareness about the use of partially hydrogenated oil in foods and cardiovascular risks of consuming trans fat.
  • Adopt procurement guidelines regarding the sale and/or use of foods containing artificial trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil).

Resources

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010External Web Site Icon
The Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides advice about how good dietary habits for people aged 2 years and older can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases.

Trans Fat: What you need to knowExternal Web Site Icon
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a general fact sheet about trans fat.

References

1 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.

2 Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2005.

3 Dietz WH, Scanlon, KS. 2012. Eliminating the Use of Partially Hydrogenated Oil in Food Production and Preparation. JAMA. 2012;308(2):143-144.

4 Doell D, Folmer D, Lee H, Honigfort M, Carberry S. 2012. Updated estimate of trans fat intake in the U.S. population. Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A: Chemistry, Analysis, Control, Exposure & Risk Assessment. Available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19440049.2012.664570External Web Site Icon.

5 Center for Science in the Public Interest. Trans fat bans in restaurants: http://www.cspinet.org/transfat/External Web Site Icon. Accessed March 18, 2012.

 

 

Saturated Fat

You may have heard that saturated fats are the “solid” fats in your diet. For the most part, this is true. For example, if you open a container of meat stew, you will probably find some fat floating on top. This fat is saturated fat.

But other saturated fats can be more difficult to see in your diet. In general, saturated fat can be found in the following foods:

  • High-fat cheeses
  • High-fat cuts of meat
  • Whole-fat milk and cream
  • Butter
  • Ice cream and ice cream products
  • Palm and coconut oils

It’s important to note that lower-fat versions of these foods usually will contain saturated fats, but typically in smaller quantities than the regular versions.

As you look at this list above, notice two things. First, animal fats are a primary source of saturated fat. Secondly, certain plant oils are another source of saturated fats: palm oils, coconut oils, and cocoa butter. You may think you don’t use palm or coconut oils, but they are often added to commercially-prepared foods, such as cookies, cakes, doughnuts, and pies. Solid vegetable shortening often contains palm oils and some whipped dessert toppings contain coconut oil.

How do I control my saturated fat intake?

In general, saturated fat can be found in the following foods:

  • High-fat cheeses
  • High-fat cuts of meat
  • Whole-fat milk and cream
  • Butter
  • Ice cream and ice cream products
  • Palm and coconut oils

So how can you cut back on your intake of saturated fats? Try these tips:

  1. Choose leaner cuts of meat that do not have a marbled appearance (where the fat appears embedded in the meat). Leaner cuts include round cuts and sirloin cuts. Trim all visible fat off meats before eating.
  2. Remove the skin from chicken, turkey, and other poultry before cooking.
  3. When re-heating soups or stews, skim the solid fats from the top before heating.
  4. Drink low-fat (1%) or fat-free (skim) milk rather than whole or 2% milk.
  5. Buy low-fat or non-fat versions of your favorite cheeses and other milk or dairy products.
  6. When you want a sweet treat, reach for a low-fat or fat-free version of your favorite ice cream or frozen dessert. These versions usually contain less saturated fat.
  7. Use low-fat spreads instead of butter. Most margarine spreads contain less saturated fat than butter. Look for a spread that is low in saturated fat and doesn’t contain trans fats.
  8. Choose baked goods, breads, and desserts that are low in saturated fat. You can find this information on the Nutrition Facts label.
  9. Pay attention at snack time. Some convenience snacks such as sandwich crackers contain saturated fat. Choose instead to have non-fat or low-fat yogurt and a piece of fruit.

To learn more about the Nutrition Facts label, visit How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label (FDA).

Quick Q&A
What should I choose— butter or margarine? Should I choose a stick, tub, or liquid?
Stick of butter next to breadWith such a variety of products available, it can be a difficult decision. Here are some general rules of thumb to help you compare products:

Look at the Nutrition Facts label to compare both the trans fat and the saturated fat content. Choose the one that has the fewest grams of trans fat and the fewest grams of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.
If possible, find one that says zero grams of trans fat.

When looking at the Daily Value for saturated fat and cholesterol remember that 5 percent is low and 20 percent is high.

If you are also trying to reduce calories, you may want to look for a version that says “light.” These products contain fewer calories and can help you stay within your calorie goals.

If you find two products that seem comparable, try them both and choose the one that tastes better!

Dietary Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that’s found in animal-based foods such as meats, poultry, egg yolks, and whole milks. Do you remember the other type of fat that is found in animal-based products? That’s right — saturated fat.

So, when you follow the tips to reduce your saturated fat intake, in most cases, you will be reducing your dietary cholesterol intake at the same time. For example, if you switch to low-fat and fat-free dairy products, you will reduce your intake of both saturated fat and cholesterol.

Quick Q&A
I’ve heard that some people have high blood cholesterol because of the foods they eat but that other people have high cholesterol because of genetics. What’s the difference?
Not only do you get cholesterol from the foods you eat (your diet) your body also makes cholesterol to use in normal body functions.

The cholesterol made by your body is partly influenced by your genes and these genes are shared by your family members.

Even though genetics play a role, families often also share the same eating and lifestyle habits. Some health problems that seem to run in families may be worsened by these unhealthful habits. If you have a genetic tendency to produce more cholesterol, you may still obtain additional benefits from reducing the cholesterol in your diet.

Cholesterol in Your Blood

You may be reading this section about cholesterol because you have been diagnosed with high blood cholesterol, or you may have been told that your “good” cholesterol is too low, or that your “bad” cholesterol is too high. What does all this mean?

Here are some quick definitions that may help you. You may also want to check out the links below for more detailed information.

Total Cholesterol. This is the total measured cholesterol in your blood. This number includes all other types of cholesterol such as HDL and LDL, as defined below. High blood cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

It is important to know your numbers. You can’t tell if the cholesterol in your blood is high by how you feel. You’ll need a blood test from your healthcare provider to know. If you don’t know what your blood cholesterol level is, talk to your health care provider.

HDL. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The HDL cholesterol is often called “good” cholesterol because it helps carry cholesterol away from your body’s organs and to your liver where it can be removed. To help you remember, that HDL is the “good” cholesterol, recall that the “H” stands for high and higher HDL cholesterol is good.

LDL. LDL stands low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. The LDL cholesterol is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol because it’s the type of cholesterol that is linked with a higher chance of heart disease. Remember that L stands for “low” and you want to keep LDL lower in your blood.

What Is High Blood Cholesterol?

Side view of artery with plaqueToo much cholesterol in the blood, or high blood cholesterol, can be serious. People with high blood cholesterol have a greater chance of getting heart disease. Cholesterol can build up on the walls of your arteries (blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body). This buildup of cholesterol is called plaque. Over time, plaque can cause narrowing of the arteries.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with high blood cholesterol or want more information about how to prevent it, visit these links from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for more information.

 

High Blood Cholesterol
National Institute of Health (NIH), National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
This site explains what high blood cholesterol is, its signs and symptoms, and how it is diagnosed and treated.

 

High Blood Cholesterol: What You Need to Know (PDF-195k)
NHLBI, National Cholesterol Education Program
This document explains what your cholesterol numbers mean, how to calculate your heart disease risk, and how to treat high levels of cholesterol using the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet.

Please note that these Web sites are intended for adults who have been diagnosed with high cholesterol. For information about cholesterol and children, please visit the American Heart Association’s Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis in Children.*

 

Polyunsaturated Fats and Monounsaturated Fats

Most of the fat that you eat should come from unsaturated sources: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. In general, nuts, vegetable oils, and fish are sources of unsaturated fats. The table below provides examples of specific types of unsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated Fat Sources Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources
Nuts
Vegetable oils
Canola oil
Olive oil
High oleic safflower oil
Sunflower oil
Avocado
Soybean oil
Corn oil
Safflower oil
Soybean oil
Canola oil
Walnuts
Flaxseed
Fish: trout, herring, and salmon

 

Polyunsaturated fats can also be broken down into two types:

  • Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats — these fats provide an essential fatty acid that our bodies need, but can’t make.
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats — these fats also provide an essential fatty acid that our bodies need. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids, particularly from fish sources, may have potential health benefits.

How do I control my polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat intake?

In general, nuts, vegetable oils, and fish are sources of unsaturated fats. The table below provides examples of specific types of unsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated Fat Sources Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fat Sources
Nuts
Vegetable oils
Canola oil
Olive oil
High oleic safflower oil
Sunflower oil
Avocado
Soybean oil
Corn oil
Safflower oil
Soybean oil
Canola oil
Walnuts
Flaxseed
Fish: trout, herring, and salmon

Below are tips for including appropriate amounts of unsaturated fats in your diet:

  • Replace solid fats used in cooking with liquid oils. Visit MyPlate – Daily Food Plans to learn more about your daily recommendations.
  • Remember any type of fat is high in calories. To avoid additional calories, substitute polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats for saturated fats and trans fats rather than adding these fats to your diet.
  • Have an ounce of dry-roasted nuts as a snack. Nuts and seeds count as part of your meat and beans allowance on the MyPyramid plan.