If the nutrition world had Avengers (bear with me here), fat would be the Bucky Barnes of the group—once a villain, then rehabilitated to be a true hero. It’s not that long ago when fat-free butter replacements and fat-free snacks and desserts were all the rage; now things couldn’t be more different. Fat is back, baby.
However, as we all embrace healthy fats and slather our toast with nut butter, pile avocados onto our salads, and add MCT oils into our coffees, it begs the question: how much fat per day, even the healthy kind, is okay to eat? After all, protein is healthy but there’s definitely still a limit on what we’re supposed to be consuming every day.
Answering this question gets confusing, fast. So we talked to experts to figure out what we should be doing in the fats department to maximize those benefits without going overboard.
How much fat per day is safe to eat?
Unfortunately there’s no one “magic” number of grams of fat that works for everyone. But in general, nutritionist Jessica Ash, CNC, and founder of Jessica Ash Wellness recommends getting about 20 to 30 percent of your daily calories from fat. Whitney English MS, RDN agrees. “For someone on a 2,000 calorie diet, that would be about 55 to 66 grams of fat a day,” English says.
However, that number is flexible depending on a person’s activity level and overall health. For example, women with hormonal issues sometimes need more or less fat than someone with no health issues. “Fats offer satiety and are the building blocks of hormones—specifically saturated fat and cholesterol. So if there is hormonal imbalance or hormonal issues then maybe fat intake needs to be a little higher,” says Ash, who specializes in helping women with hormonal imbalances and PCOS.
Even with her recommended guidelines, English tells her clients not to stress about specific macros as much as quality. “Instead of focusing on fat quantity, I encourage clients to focus on fat quality. Fat is so important for so many functions and life stages. For women specifically, consuming an adequate amount and good sources of fat plays a major role in fertility and a healthy pregnancy,” she says. The only group of people that she says may want to make a conscious effort to restrict their fat intake are those with cardiovascular disease.
However, that isn’t to say that we all should be going ham on avocados and nut butters. “Too much of anything is a bad thing. While healthy fats are good for us, they are high in calories and can end up crowding out other important nutrients if people fill up on them,” English says. “I recommend always balancing your meals with a good source of fat, complex carbohydrates, and protein.” Plus, diets that are too high in fat can lead to potential problems such as hormonal imbalances and other health problems (more on those in a sec).
Speaking of healthy fats, here’s one dietitian’s take on avocados:
Cool, so what kinds of fat should we all be eating?
There are two main types of healthy fats: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These are both unsaturated fats, which in science speak means that their hydrocarbon molecule building blocks contain double or triple bonds, preventing them from being totally saturated with hydrogen molecules. In practical terms, these fats are usually liquid at room temperature and generally come from plant foods and some fish. They’re also associated with lots of health benefits, like improved heart and brain health, balancing hormones, and reduced inflammation.
Most experts agree that getting most of your fats from unsaturated fat sources is your best bet. You can find lots of monounsaturated fats in foods like avocados, almonds, and olive oil. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats, meanwhile, include walnuts and fish (omega-3s are a form of polyunsaturated fats) and flaxseed.
Saturated fats—which are solid at room temperature and mostly come from animal sources—are a bit more controversial. Our bodies need saturated fats for hormone production, brain function, liver function and more. However, excessive saturated fat consumption has long been linked to high cholesterol levels and heart disease. But a few recent studies disputed those associations, finding that there isn’t conclusive evidence to prove that saturated fat is linked to cardiovascular disease or other outcomes. Cue the cheers of keto dieters everywhere…and the confusion of everyone else.
Experts are still split about how much saturated fat is okay to eat. “When it comes to coconut butter, and fats from things like grass-fed butter, I think a moderate intake is really helpful. I think you don’t want to overdo it on the fat intake in general, but having a moderate amount each day is pretty reasonable especially if it’s coming from high quality, mindful sources,” says Ash. English disagrees. “Research shows that [over-] consuming saturated fat—mainly found in meat, dairy, and eggs—increases the risk of many chronic diseases including heart disease, male and female infertility, PCOS, and certain types of cancer,” says English. She adds that coconut oil, while likely a healthier option than animal-derived saturated fats, is still a controversial food and shouldn’t be eaten with abandon.
Ultimately, English and Ash say it’s best to incorporate a mix of monounsaturated fats (like olive oil, avocado) and whole-food polyunsaturated fats (like nuts and seeds) into your diet, with some quality saturated fats (i.e. coconut oil, ghee) in moderation. Like most things in wellness, it’s all about balance.
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