What Constitutes a Diet Low in Saturated Fat

By Lynn Keegan, RN, PhD, HNC, FAAN, and Gerald T. Keegan, MD, FACS

Experts recommend a diet that provides no more than 30% of total calories from fat. For example, at 2,000 calories per day, the suggested upper limit of calories from fat is about 600 calories. Sixty-five grams of fat contribute about 600 calories (65 g of fat x 9 calories/g = about 600 calories). On the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Nutrition Facts Label, 65 g of fat is the Daily Value for a 2,000-calorie intake.

Some foods and food groups in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid are higher in fat than others. Fats, oils, and some types of desserts and snack foods that contain fat provide calories but few nutrients. Many foods in the milk group and in the meat and beans group (which includes eggs, nuts, meat, poultry, and fish) also are high in fat, as are some processed foods in the grain group. Choosing lower fat options among these foods allows one to eat the recommended servings from these groups and increase the amount and variety of grain products, fruits, and vegetables in the diet without going over calorie needs.

Fats contain both saturated and unsaturated (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fatty acids. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol more than other forms of fat. Reducing saturated fat to less than 10% of calories will help lower blood cholesterol. The fats from meat, milk, and milk products are the main sources of saturated fats in most diets. Many bakery products also are sources of saturated fats. Vegetable oils supply smaller amounts of saturated fat. On the Nutrition Facts Label, 20 g of saturated fat (9% of caloric intake) is the Daily Value for a 2,000-calorie diet.

Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fat

Olive and canola oils are particularly high in mono- unsaturated fats; most other vegetable oils, nuts, and high-fat fish are good sources of polyunsaturated fats. Both kinds of unsaturated fats reduce blood cholesterol when they replace saturated fats in the diet. The fats in most fish are low in saturated fatty acids and contain a certain type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (omega-3) that is under study because of a possible association with a decreased risk for heart disease in certain people. Mono- and polyunsaturated fat sources should replace saturated fats within this limit.

Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as those used in many margarines and shortenings, contain a particular form of unsaturated fat known as trans-fatty acids that may raise blood cholesterol levels, although not as much as saturated fat.

To reduce intake of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, follow these recommendations.

  • Use fats and oils sparingly.
  • Refer to the Nutrition Facts Label to choose foods lower in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
  • Eat plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits.
  • Choose low-fat milk products, lean meats, fish, poultry, beans, and peas to get essential nutrients without substantially increasing calorie and saturated fat intakes.

Low-Calorie Alternative Foods

Low-calorie alternatives provide new ideas for old favorites. When making food choices, remember to consider vitamins and minerals. Some foods provide most of their calories from sugar and fat but provide few, if any, vitamins and minerals. Table 1 is a brief example of how to choose lower fat foods. Remember to read labels to find out just how many calories and fats are in specific products.