These days it’s easy to overshoot our daily intake of healthy fats. Avocados are still the trendiest food on menus and social media feeds and nuts are increasingly picked as a healthy snack over chips. And once you start, it’s hard to stop. Though these foods play a necessary role in a healthy diet, fat is simply high in calories so you still need to pay attention to your intake. “Gram for gram, fat does have more calories than carbohydrates and protein. If you’re eating more calories than your body needs, that’s not great. We want to eat in alignment with what our body needs, which fluctuates day to day,” says Carrie Dennett, registered dietitian and MPH, RDN, CD.
It’s hard to know exactly how many healthy fats our body will need on any given day. But, we can follow some basic guidelines to make sure we’re eating just the right amount. We break down how to moderate your intake of healthy fats and how many of them you actually need.
Remind me, why do I need to eat fat?
Contrary to what science in the latter half of the 20th century would have you believe, the human body actually needs fat to run optimally. “A lot of the nutrients [and vitamins] we take in are what are known as fat-soluble vitamins. So if we’re not getting enough fat in the diet, we might not be absorbing these vitamins,” Dennett says. Take salads, for example. According to Dennett, without some kind of fat in the mix, the body will struggle to absorb the nutrients from the vegetables and leafy greens. Olive oil-based dressing or other healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, or hard-boiled eggs will help your body properly take in those vitamins.
Some people still believe eliminating any kind of fat from their diet is the key to weight loss. However, a recent study conducted by Stanford University showed that following a low-fat diet didn’t necessarily result in weight loss. The study observed two groups over a period of 12 months: one on a balanced, low-fat diet and the other on a balanced, low-carb diet. The study concluded that neither diet had a significant influence on weight loss or insulin production in the body.
That said, it’s important to keep in mind the types of fat you’re consuming. There are fats that are bad for you, such as trans fat and saturated fat, and fats that are good for you, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. The emphasis should always be on the latter. Though saturated fat isn’t all bad, it should only be consumed in limited quantity.
How many fats do I need?
It isn’t always easy to figure out exactly how many servings of healthy fats you need in your diet. The truth is that this varies from person to person. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that, for adults, 20-35 percent of daily calories should come from fat. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat.
“A good guideline is generally every meal should include some sort of healthy fat,” Dennett says. “That could be as simple as some olive oil with your vinaigrette on your salad. It could be a sprinkling of nuts. When I have patients who tell me that they usually eat an apple as a snack in the afternoon, one of my suggestions is to include a small, closed handful—maybe a quarter cup—of nuts. The fats are going to give you more staying power.”
How can I moderate my intake of healthy fats?
Considering the common sources of healthy fats—nuts and nut butters and avocados to name a few—it’s easy to overdo it. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to combat this.
Portion it out.
“Some people fall into the trap of snacking on nuts … but when you share it with a piece of fruit, you get some nice balance. You get more variety of nutrients,” Dennett says. Though she doesn’t advocate for counting calories, she does recommend portioning out meals and snacks, as well as eating mindfully and listening to your body. “We want to eat in alignment with what our body needs, which fluctuates day to day,” she says. “I don’t advocate calorie counting. I think we need to tune in more to our hunger levels and fullness levels as a guide.”
Read nutrition labels.
Along with portion control, Dennett advises looking at the nutrition label for amounts of total, trans, and saturated fat. She recommends looking at the ingredient list to determine where the fats in the food product are coming from. The FDA also provides helpful tips for reading nutrition labels on their website. Take a look at the ingredients listed on the label. According to the FDA’s website, the higher up something is, the more of it is contained in the food product. The website states that the ingredients containing the most saturated and trans fat include animals fats, butter, cream, partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, and tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, etc.).
Make health-conscious swaps.
Another way to limit fat intake, according to Dennett, is to replace poultry with seafood. “Eating seafood instead of poultry a few days a week can increase healthy omega-3 fats, especially if the swap is to fatty fish like salmon or sardines,” says Dennett. “This would also reduce saturated fat, especially if you tend to eat your poultry with the skin on (the skin has a lot of the fat). What surprises many people is that even the fattier types of fish have about as much fat as the leaner cuts of meat. And, as a bonus, the fats in fish are much better for us.”
Cut back on the sweets.
Of course, Dennett also recommends cutting back on sugar to limit intake of fat. “Although soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet, grain-based desserts—cookies, cakes, pies and other baked goods—along with candy and dairy desserts are also significant sources,” Dennett says.
Pay attention to your cooking oil.
Dennett reminds her clients that, though coconut oil has recently been targeted as a health-conscious cooking ingredient, it still contains high amounts of saturated fat. “There’s been kind of a health halo around coconut oil. I really don’t recommend coconut oil for major use. It’s different if someone has a nice recipe or something where it adds a nice flavor from a culinary point of view. But generally, the best bet is olive oil is your go-to cooking oil,” she says.
So the next time that you grocery shop, meal prep, or go out to eat, be mindful of your intake of healthy fats. You’ll reap the benefits of a nutritious meal, without unintentionally overloading on calories.