Dietary Fats

  • 16 Minutes Read

Dietary Fats

Fats provide more than just delightful taste and palatability - they provide essential fatty acids necessary for health and allow us to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats are also very high in calories - they contain more than double the amount found in protein and carbs. Fat, carbs, and protein are all macronutrients. They are consumed in relatively large amounts (grams) and they provide calories.

Fat 9 calories per gram
Protein 4 calories per gram
Carbs 4 calories per gram

Total Fat Goal

Since most MyNetDiary members are trying to lose weight and/or manage their prediabetes or diabetes, MyNetDiary uses a macronutrient distribution to encourage intake of healthy proteins and fats while controlling carb intake. The goals are within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for fat, carbohydrates, and protein developed by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. These ranges support intake of essential nutrients while also limiting risk of chronic diseases.

Macronutrient DRI: Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges MyNetDiary Goal
Fat20-35% of total calories35% of total calories
Carbohydrate45-65% of total calories45% of total calories
Protein10-35% of total calories20% of total calories

If you follow an eating pattern that requires a different macronutrient distribution range, then simply customize your macronutrient goals. You can customize your macronutrient goals on any device with a Premium membership. You can also customize your goals if you use the standalone Diabetes Tracker application.

Types of Fat

Fats and oils always contain a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids but differ in the relative proportion of each type. For instance, olive oil has mostly monounsaturated fatty acids whereas coconut oil has mostly saturated fatty acids. Learn more about each type in the sections that follow.

Trans Fat

Trans fatty acids are the fourth type of fatty acid, but they are not found in all fats. Naturally occurring trans fatty acids are found in small amounts in beef and lamb, and in negligible amounts in other meats and full-fat milk products. In contrast, content can be quite high when trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs are industrially produced and are used as inexpensive fats in many foods. PHOs are commonly found in fast food, restaurant food, bakeries, and deep-fat fried food. PHOs are also in food we buy at the supermarket. Vegetable shortening, stick margarine, coffee creamer, cake and muffin mix, frosting, pie crust, and baked foods often contain trans fats in the form of PHOs. Read the food label and ingredient list to see if your foods contain them. The trans fat content will be 0 grams unless the amount is greater than 1/2 gram per serving. But if partially hydrogenated oil is in the ingredient list, then that product contains trans fats.

Eating foods high in trans fats are the most dangerous for heart health because they increase blood LDL level - the "bad" blood cholesterol that can cause heart disease and heart attacks. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration no longer recognized PHOs as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for use in human food. We should expect to see removal of PHOs from foods in the United States by June 18, 2018. You can read about this final determination published in the Federal Register.

Tip: View Daily Analysis for a quick view of your trans fat intake compared to your entered goal. You can also see which of your foods contributed the most to your intake.

MyNetDiary's goal for trans fat is 0% kcal or 0 grams. This goal is consistent with the recommendations from the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 which both recommend that intake of trans fats from PHOs be as low as possible.

Saturated Fat

Fats that are high in saturated fatty acids are typically solid at room temperature. When you look at raw prime beef, ribs, bacon, or pork chop, you see saturated fat as solid white fat surrounding the meat or marbled within the meat. In poultry, you see it as a yellowish solid fat just beneath the skin. But don't assume a food is low in saturated fat just because you cannot see solid fat. Ground beef, deer, bison, or elk used for burgers tend to be high in saturated fats since the higher fat parts from the animal are used. The same applies to sausage but even more so - the fattiest parts of the animal are used. Full-fat dairy products such as butter, cream, cheese, whole milk, and yogurt are also high in saturated fat even though many of the products are liquids (milk, cream) or gels (yogurt) at room temperature.

Although saturated fats are mostly found in animal fats, we also find them in tropical fats such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil. Another significant source of saturated fat is fully hydrogenated vegetable oil. Complete hydrogenation results in a high saturated fat content (instead of a high trans fat content that results from partial hydrogenation). Food manufacturers have started to replace PHOs with tropical fats and fully hydrogenated oils in an effort to be ready when PHOs will no longer be allowed as a food ingredient.

Reducing your risk for heart disease does not mean you have to eliminate all sources of saturated fat from your diet. In fact, that would be impossible if you eat any food that contains fat. The current guidelines for heart health emphasize a shift to consuming more unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) compared to saturated fats. This shift helps lower a high LDL blood level, which in turn, helps lower the risk for heart disease. It does not mean you have to eat low fat nor does it mean you have to be a vegetarian.

If you are interested in the science behind public health guidelines for saturated fat intake, then consider reading Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association published online June 15, 2017. You can also read the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 for more information about consumption patterns and how that relates to current guidelines.

It is okay to disagree with the recommendations for saturated fat intake. You might be following an eating plan that is higher in saturated fat but feel that your diet is healthful and supporting your health goals. Ask your doctor to check your blood LDL level - if it is decreasing or within a low risk range, then whatever you are eating or doing is having beneficial effects. If you have specific questions about fat intake given your lab results or medical history, then ask your primary care provider for specific advice and guidance.

Tip: If you have a Premium subscription, you can customize your saturated fat goal, and then use that goal for your Daily Analysis. Or, you can choose to remove saturated fat from your Daily Analysis by choosing not to view it in your food log. To do that, go into Plan section, find saturated fat, tap the 3-dot icon to the right of the target amount, select Saturated Fat Settings, and then toggle off the option Show in Food Log. If you leave Show on Dashboard toggled on, then you can still view your saturated fat intake on your Dashboard, but without any analysis about it. Many members who follow Paleo or Keto eating styles find this feature very useful.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends less than 10% total calories come from saturated fat. For a 2000 calories intake, that would be less than 22 g of saturated fat. The goal for trans fat is to eliminate or limit intake as much as possible. A simple way to reduce both would be to start cutting down on fast food and chain restaurant food. Many of these foods are high in both saturated and trans fats - a terrible combo for heart health. Think of the large burgers with American cheese with fries or onion rings. Or, think about those huge deep-fat fried platters of food. And to add insult to injury, these types of items are also very high in calories and sodium.

Consider this meal from McDonald's fast food restaurant (using their online nutrition calculator). 1 quarter pounder with cheese and 1 medium order of fries contains 23 g of saturated fat and 2.5 g of trans fat. If I followed the recommendation to lower both but I still wanted a burger and fries, then I would order a regular cheeseburger and small fries for only 7 g saturated fat and 0.5 g trans fat. If I wanted to completely avoid trans fats and lower my saturated fat even further, I would order an Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich and side salad for only 2 g saturated fat and 0g trans fat.

Tip: View Daily Analysis for a quick view of your saturated fat intake compared to your entered goal. You can also see which of your foods contributed the most to your intake.

MyNetDiary's goal for saturated fat is 10% total calories or less. This goal is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. For those of you with diabetes and/or have a high risk for heart disease or heart attack, please follow your healthcare provider's recommendation for saturated fat intake as it could be lower than this goal.

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered heart healthy and are plentiful in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, fish and seafood. At room temperature, oils with mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids will be liquid.

Our bodies cannot manufacture two specific types of polyunsaturated fatty acids so those need to be consumed in our diet: linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). An Adequate Intake determined by the Dietary Reference Intakes, depending upon age and sex, is 11-17 grams of linoleic acid and 1.1-1.6 grams of alpha linolenic acid. These amounts are easily met when fat intake is not severely restricted.

Note that linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are not available for tracking since they are not required on food labels and the data is not easily accessible from the USDA National Nutrient Database.

If you use MyNetDiary's goal of 12.5% calories coming from polyunsaturated fats, then you will meet the Adequate Intake level for those two essential fatty acids if your intake is at least 950 calories for women and 1400 calories for men. If your Calorie Budget is below those levels then consider customizing your polyunsaturated fat goal to at least 14 grams for adult women and 19 grams for adult men. You need a Premium membership to track and customize polyunsaturated fat.

Rich sources of linoleic acid include vegetable oils (especially soybean oil), nuts, seeds, meats, and eggs. Linoleic acid is especially easy to meet since it is found in so many plant and animal foods.

Rich sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flaxseed oil and flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts and walnut oil, and soybean oil.

Cold water fish are high in DHA and EPA, both polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids that are heart-healthy. These types of fatty acids are not considered essential in the diet since we can survive without them. Also, there is some conversion from alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and then to DHA. Even though DHA and EPA are not essential fatty acids, consuming enough DHA is considered especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding since it promotes healthy brain and eye development in the fetus and infant. For more information, see Colorado State University's DHA & Omega-3 Fatty Acids During Pregnancy. Microalgae-based supplements for DHA and EPA are options for vegetarians.

MyNetDiary's goal for polyunsaturated fat is 12.5% total calories or more. This goal is consistent with the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume relatively more unsaturated fats than saturated fats for heart health.

Monounsaturated Fat

Monounsaturated fatty acids are also considered heart healthy and are plentiful in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, almonds, pecans, and peanuts. At room temperature, oils with mostly monounsaturated fatty acids will be liquid.

We are most familiar with the beneficial effects of monounsaturated fats from the Mediterranean diet studies. People living in countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea have less heart disease. They consume a lot of extra virgin olive oil - an oil that is highest in monounsaturated fatty acids as well as being a significant source of polyphenols - a type of heart-healthy antioxidant.

Mediterranean style eating is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and yet it is neither low fat nor vegetarian. The typical diet is mostly plant-based with plenty of olive oil, nuts, seeds, red wine, some fish and dairy, but less red meat than a typical American diet. You can learn more about this this style of eating in these posts from MyNetDiary: Mediterranean Diet, Eating More Mediterranean Style and Mediterranean Diets: Good Food, Good Fats, and Healthy Eating. MyNetDiary's macronutrient distribution goals are especially compatible with a Mediterranean style diet.

Canola and peanut oils are also high sources of monounsaturated fatty acids. Canola oil is a good option when you need a more neutral flavor whereas peanut oil is great for a more Asian-inspired flavor. If you are concerned about the health effects of using refined, bleached, and deodorized oils (RBD oils), then try unrefined, cold-pressed oils. You can learn more about this topic by reading Ask the Expert: Concerns about canola oil published online at Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health - The Nutrition Source.

If you use extra virgin olive oil or cold-pressed oils, you can use them directly on foods as well as bake, roast, and saute with them. Antioxidant activity is highest if the oil is not heated. Do not use unrefined oils for deep-fat frying since the high temperature will cause them to smoke at a lower temperature than their refined versions. Since it is a good idea to limit deep-fat fried foods anyway, using unrefined oils should work well in most kitchens. Consider shopping online if you find the prices too high in your local supermarket.

MyNetDiary's goal for monounsaturated fat is 12.5% total calories or more. This goal is consistent with the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume relatively more unsaturated fats than saturated fats for heart health.

Fat Tips

Last Updated on May 14, 2018

May 14, 2018
Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE - Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)

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