Figuring Out Fat for Optimal Body Composition—Know Your Food Labels

Evaluating fat content for quality, quantity, and more

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

When looking at a nutrition facts label, you’ll see how many grams of fat the food has. What does this actually mean for your health, though? Professor Ormsbee breaks it down.

Woman reading food label in grocery store
The USDA recommends that only about 20–35% of your total daily calories should be coming from fat. Photo By Tijana Simic / Shutterstock

Fat—A Necessary Ingredient

Once you have figured out how to evaluate a nutrition facts label in terms of carbohydrates and proteins, you may be wondering how to analyze fat content. First, when you are eating lean meats, you often have both protein and fat in the food. 

Thus, sometimes you don’t have to actively seek out more fat to eat. However, there are definitely times when a good mix of the types of fat need to be considered, or total fat needs to be increased or decreased.

You can find all of the fat information on the nutrition facts label. Consuming certain types of good fats can actually help to improve body composition. 

This is because fats are generally more satiating than either proteins or carbohydrates—meaning that they leave you feeling full longer and stop you from reaching back for a second helping or snack. Fats are absolutely necessary for many body processes and are the main fuel for the body at rest and during low intensity to moderate intensity physical activity.

Analyze Fat by Quantity and Quality

How many calories should come from fat each day? How can you use the food label to analyze which fats are better for us, and which fats get the bad rap?

There’s no gram per day recommendation for fat. Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a general range based on the percentage of your total dietary intake, including about 20–35% of your total calories coming from fat. However, new research shows that many people can eat more fat than this and still improve body composition and health.

A better way to analyze fats is by the types of fats. Professor Ormsbee recommends choosing a good mix of poly, mono, and saturated fats and limiting omega–6 fatty acids that come from vegetable oils and pre-made dressings and increasing intake of omega–3 fatty acids from fish, nuts, and seeds.

Fats to Avoid

As of January 2006, trans fats have been required to be on the Nutrition Facts Label. These rarely occur naturally and are considered to be the really bad guys of nutrition. 

They are formed when liquid oils are made to be solid—a simple way to increase the shelf-life of products. Essentially, they are man-made by hydrogenation where hydrogen ions are forced into the fat to change its chemical makeup.

The reason they’re known as lethal is because not only do they increase bad cholesterol, but they also decrease good cholesterol and are directly related to heart disease risk. In fact, in November 2013, the FDA concluded that partially hydrogenated oils could no longer be considered as GRAS or Generally Recognized as Safe. 

After lots of bad publicity, manufacturers have decreased the amount of trans fats found in our foods significantly. However, trans fats are still found in many snack-type foods, cookies, crackers, and food fried in partially hydrogenated oils.

Refer to the ingredients list to avoid being tricked. Some products will report zero trans fats on the nutrition label, but list hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list. 

Partially hydrogenated oils are the alter ego of trans fats. The two are equivalent. Thus, it’s best to try and avoid foods high in trans fats by reading the labels carefully. 

Daily Fat Intake

A great place to start your quality fat intake is to make it about 20–35% of your total daily calorie intake. For fat calories, multiply the fat grams by nine, not four, as you do for both protein and carbohydrates. 

This means that fat has the highest calorie count per gram of the macronutrients. If, for example, you aim for 60–100 g of fat per day, this equals 540–900 calories from fat alone. One interesting side note is that alcohol provides about seven calories per gram, making it more energy dense than either carbohydrates or protein.

Additionally, you should consider the sodium and cholesterol content of foods if you know you have a family medical history or personal disease history related to these nutrients. Otherwise, new research indicates far less concern than originally thought. 

Also, look at the amount of micronutrients in your food—including vitamins and minerals—a few will be listed on your food label. It is best to aim for about 100% of the micronutrients in your daily diet from all meals and supplements.

Overall, your diet quality is the most important aspect to improving body composition because not all calories are created equal. As it is often said, consider eating better rather than just eating less. 

Knowing what to look for on the Nutrition Facts Label can help you to identify better choices. Look for protein in your food choices, see what types of sugars you are consuming, and aim for quality fats. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.