How Much Fat Is Too Much? Risks of Excessive Fat Consumption

The Latest guidelines on fat intake

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Fat carries many health benefits. It protects our vital organs and helps to fuel us throughout the day. However, you can have too much of a good thing (even the “good” fats). Professor Anding shares the latest guidelines.

Spreading avocado on toast
Current health recommendations by the American Heart Association include consuming less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Photo By BublikHaus / Shutterstock

Risks of Excess Fat

Risks associated with consuming excess fat include heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Although no firm dietary standards exist when it comes to fat consumption, the American Heart Association encourages people to focus on replacing high-fat foods with vegetables, fruit, poultry, lean meat, unrefined whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. The American Heart Association and other organizations also recommend a ceiling of no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. 

Because we make cholesterol naturally in our liver, we don’t need to consume foods containing cholesterol in order to get our minimum dietary intake. Vegetarians tend to have lower blood cholesterol because they generally have a higher dietary quality and do not consume as many animal sources that are rich in saturated fats.

Fat Consumption Guidelines

The American Cancer Society encourages a diet that contains only 20% of total calories from fats, or lipids, to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer such colon, endometrial (the lining of the uterus), rectum, prostate, and possibly breast cancer. However, reducing the fat content of our diet that low can be difficult.

Some organizations suggest lowering total dietary fat to 10% of calories if you have pre-existing heart disease, which is very challenging unless you’re a vegetarian or only eat meat sparingly. In summary, according to Professor Anding, a prudent recommendation is that 30% or less of your total calories should be from fat, with the majority (70% to 80%) from unsaturated fat.

Butter substitutes like Smart Balance® and Benecol ® are a good way to meet these recommendations, in that they provide a better balance of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats than real butter.

Benecol is unique in that it has a compound called stanol esters, which are plant compounds that act as cholesterol mimics. When you eat high-cholesterol food, the Benecol stanol esters block the absorption of cholesterol from your gut by attaching to the receptor on the inside of your gut.

Omega-3 Risks

Although omega-3 fatty acids come with many benefits such as reducing inflammation, there are also health risks associated with these types of fats. Like aspirin, which also reduces inflammation, omega-3s can prevent blood from clotting, so the biggest risk is the increased tendency to bleed. 

“In my athlete who was consuming omega-3 fatty acids, if he got hit on a Sunday afternoon during football, he could end up with a bigger bruise than normal because he was using something that altered his blood clotting,” Professor Anding said. “There can be some side effects with those omega-3 fatty acids, so exercise some caution when you’re taking these things as a supplement.”

Fat Deficiencies

It is also possible to have a fat deficiency. Steatorrhea, the malabsorption of fat, can occur with genetic disorders and result in severe vitamin deficiencies. A product on the market called Olestra that’s in WOW potato chips (now rebranded as “Light” chips) can also cause fat malabsorption.

Very low-fat diets can be associated with gallstones. This occurs because bile is needed to emulsify fat. If you don’t consume fat, the bile stays in the gallbladder, where it can coalesce and form stones. Those being fed IV nutrition—often because they’re bypassing the gut altogether and feeding directly into a vein—can develop gallstones pretty rapidly.

Overall, then, you want to make sure you’re consuming a healthy amount of fat in your diet and not falling prey to low-fat trends (particularly for foods like potato chips which are not naturally low-fat). At the same time, though, you do need to be aware of the risks associated with excessive fat intake.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.