How Much and What Kind of Fat Should My Meal Include?

By Mary Parsons, MS, RD

Question: Please provide a guideline for reading a nutrition label regarding fats. What is acceptable for the breakdown of the fats: total, saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated? Hopefully, everyone gets it re: trans fat.

But don’t get overwhelmed just yet – we can talk about some current guidelines that health professionals are basing our practice upon, based on what researchers have found so far. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines currently recommend a moderate fat diet, where 20-35% of your total calories come from fat. If you’re eating 2000 calories each day, this would translate into 400-700 calories from fat, or about 44-78 grams totaled up from your full day’s worth of nutrition labels. Guidelines also call for less than 10% of your total calories to come from saturated fat; sticking with the previous example, that would mean no more than 200 of those calories (or 22 of those grams) should be saturated.

For the rest of the fat – the unsaturated portion – guidelines do not currently break down what percentage should come from monounsaturated versus polyunsaturated fats. Most dietitians recommend aiming for a balance of both types from a variety of food sources as part of a well-rounded diet. But within the polyunsaturated category, we should note that it’s important to focus on eating more omega3 fats (found in fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseeds) to balance our higher intakes of omega-6 fats (most abundant in processed vegetable oils). A higher ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 helps reduce systemic inflammation, which is being linked in current research to a variety of chronic health issues. And the science is certainly in agreement with you regarding artificial trans fats – avoid those at all costs!

You’re not alone in wondering about the best approach for incorporating fat into your diet. Even among professionals, this is a topic with a lot of controversy and unanswered questions. The body of research is constantly evolving, and it’s a full time job just keeping up with the science!

As a whole, scientists are still working together to determine how different proportions of different fats can affect our health, and we’re certainly in need of further research to capture the whole picture. In the meantime, I suggest that rather than relying too heavily on numbers, focus instead on total dietary pattern, aiming to build a diet with a balanced foundation of real foods. Focus on eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lean proteins, with an adequate amount of fat coming from a variety of natural, “whole” food sources like nuts, seeds, fish, dairy and avocados.

Healthy Dining menu choices, recommended by registered dietitians, take the work out of finding the best choices at restaurants.