What’s the difference between fat and calories?

Fat is one of six nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. The other five nutrients are:

  • Carbohydrates (found in fruits, vegetables, pasta, rice, grains, peas, beans, and other legumes)
  • Proteins (found in meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and beans)
  • Minerals (such as potassium, calcium, and iron)
  • Vitamins (such as vitamins A, D, E, and K)
  • Water

Of these six nutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fats provide calories. Each gram of carbohydrate and protein yield 4 calories/gram. Each gram of fat yields 9 calories.

A calorie is a measurement, just like a teaspoon or an inch. Calories are the amount of energy released when your body breaks down (digests and absorbs) food. The more calories a food has, the more energy it can provide to your body. When you eat more calories than you need, your body stores the extra calories as body fat. Even a fat-free food can have a lot of calories. Excess calories in any form can be stored as body fat.

Why does fat get much attention?

Fat gets much of the attention for many good reasons. Consider these facts:

  • Saturated and trans fat can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (known as the “bad cholesterol”) levels in the blood. High total cholesterol or a high LDL cholesterol level is a leading risk factor for heart disease.
  • Some fatty foods (such as bacon, sausage, and potato chips) often have higher calories with fewer vitamins and minerals than low-fat other foods. (Note: Protein sources, especially red meat and dairy products, contain saturated fat. Good, low-fat sources of protein include lean meat, fish, poultry without skin, beans, lentils, tofu, fat-free or low-fat yogurt, milk, and cottage cheese.)
  • Fat has more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates and proteins. A gram of fat has about 9 calories, while a gram of carbohydrate or protein has about 4 calories. In other words, you could eat twice as much carbohydrates or proteins as fat for the same amount of calories.

How much fat should I eat?

A diet that is moderate in fat content is important for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing heart disease and stroke while providing adequate and essential nutrients. The Institute of Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend a total fat intake of 25-35 percent of calories. That’s about 80 grams of fat or less a day if you eat 2,000 calories a day.

How can I know how much fat I am eating?

  • Read nutrition labels on food packages. Nutrition labels show the number of grams of fat per serving. Compare this number to your “budgeted” amount of fat for the day. Food labels also show the daily percentage of fat provided in each serving. In other words, if the daily percentage of fat per serving is 18%, each serving provides 18% of the total fat you should eat for the day. Consume higher-fat foods in moderate amounts to keep calories under control if you are trying to lose weight.
  • The fat content of foods can be found online and with the use of apps and in fat and calorie-counting books. When choosing information, look for those using the USDA Food Composition Databases.

How many grams of fat should I eat each day (based on 35% calories from fat)?

  • If you eat this many calories daily: 1,200;Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 47
  • If you eat this many calories daily: 1,500; Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 58
  • If you eat this many calories daily: 1,800; Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 70
  • If you eat this many calories daily: 2,000; Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 78
  • If you eat this many calories daily: 2,200; Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 86
  • If you eat this many calories daily: 2,500; Eat no more than this many fat grams daily: 97

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