Dietary Fat

Understand dietary fat and dietary fat targets in the Nutrient Explorer

What it is

Dietary fat is one of the three major macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrate. A macronutrient is a nutrient you need to consume in relatively large quantities to meet your body’s needs.

What it does

Dietary fat serves several important functions. First, it significantly aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins from your food. Furthermore, all of your cells are surrounded by a lipid bilayer (a semipermeable membrane primarily composed of fats), and dietary fats provide much of the raw materials for those membranes. Specific dietary fats – omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids – are also essential nutrients that are required to regulate inflammatory signaling. Finally, very low dietary fat intake may be associated with an increase in hunger, and a decrease in sex hormone production.

Recommended intake

Most public health agencies recommend that dietary fat should account for 20-35% of total energy intake in your diet.

However, that recommendation is fairly broad and non-specific due to a lack of good evidence for establishing more precise intake thresholds. Given the functions of dietary fat listed above, it’s more likely that actual dietary fat needs scale with body size, rather than total energy intake. So, if your current energy intake is considerably higher or lower than most people of your general body size, it’s possible that the 20-35% range may be a bit too wide or a bit too narrow, especially on the lower end.

For instance, if your total energy intake is quite low (for example, if you have a pretty sedentary lifestyle, and you’re trying to lose weight), it’s possible that a fat intake comprising 20% of total energy intake may still deliver less total fat than your body needs in an absolute sense. Conversely, if total energy intake is quite high, it’s entirely possible that fat intake comprising 15% of total energy intake would still deliver plenty of dietary fat in an absolute sense.

Furthermore, higher fat intakes can also coincide with a healthy and nutritionally complete diet. For example, lower-carb, higher-fat diets with a large amount of animal products generally have worse mortality outcomes (likely owing to the saturated fat content of animal fats) than diets with more moderate fat and carbohydrate distributions, but lower-carb, higher-fat diets with more plant-based foods generally lead to similar or better mortality outcomes.

In short, there’s a pretty wide range of acceptable dietary fat intakes.

Likelihood of tracking completeness: Very high

Virtually all foods in the MacroFactor database contain dietary fat information, so it should be easy to accurately track your calorie intake with consistent food logging.

For more on the likelihood of tracking completeness, check out this article.

Likelihood of insufficient intake: Very low (most of the time)

The vast majority of people in developed countries are able to achieve sufficient dietary fat intake. However, if total energy intake is quite low (for example, if you’re pursuing a very large energy deficit, or you’re trying to achieve extreme levels of leanness), it may be challenging to consume enough fat without exceeding your calorie target. For this reason, we’d recommend selecting the “standard” calorie floor if you’re on a coached program in MacroFactor, and making a point of meeting or exceeding your daily fat target when you’re aiming to lose weight.

For more on nutrients with a greater likelihood of insufficient or excessive intake, check out this article.

Signs of deficiency/insufficiency

Signs of insufficient or deficient fat intake are quite nonspecific, much like insufficient protein intake – dry skin, slower hair growth, increased rates of minor illnesses or infections, increased hunger, brain fog, loss of libido, etc. As insufficient intake becomes deficient intake, symptoms generally stay the same, but become more severe (for example, hair loss instead of slower hair growth, or scaly skin rashes instead of merely dry skin).

If you’re concerned you may have a dietary fat deficiency, seek screening and assistance from a medical doctor or registered dietician.

Good sources

It’s generally recommended to keep saturated fat intake below 10% of total energy intake, so the best sources of dietary fat are nutrient-dense foods with relatively high levels of unsaturated fats (especially essential fatty acids), and lower levels of saturated fat. Fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados are all great food sources of dietary fat.

Whole eggs and full-fat dairy products contain higher levels of saturated fat, but also provide relatively high concentrations of other essential nutrients, like choline and calcium.

Try to minimize added fats and oils, especially when your total energy intake is low, since they generally provide “empty calories.” In other words, they increase energy intake, without bringing any micronutrients along for the ride. But, when you do use added fats (for instance, in salad dressings, or when you add fat to a frying pan to keep food from sticking), oils (which tend to be more unsaturated) tend to be preferable to solid fats (like butter or lard) which have a higher degree of saturation.

Learn more

If you’d like to read more about dietary fat, you might enjoy this article from the knowledge base.

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