Prior to 2016, the Nutrition Facts food label required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) included the term "calories from fat." This referred to the percentage of calories per serving that came from just the fat the food product contained — not the carbohydrates, protein or other nutrients.
Most food manufacturers removed the term from their labels in 2016, but the FDA gave some until July 2021 to comply. "'Calories from fat' has been removed because research shows the type of fat consumed is more important than the amount," the FDA explained.
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The updated labels still list total fat, saturated fat and trans fat, even though the FDA banned artificial trans fat as of 2018. "Trans fat ... occurs naturally in food products from ruminant animals," they noted. Therefore, harmful trans fat may still appear in small amounts in products such as cheese, butter and meat, and can't be banned completely.
Fat Calories vs. Total Calories
The percentage of calories a person gets from fat versus other nutrients makes little difference in terms of weight maintenance or weight loss. People who are trying to maintain or lose weight should focus on the total calories rather than on where the calories come from. "Low-fat foods are only one component of weight loss," notes the Cleveland Clinic. "If you aren't watching how many calories you eat, even fat-free and low-fat foods will be stored in your body as fat, leading to weight gain instead of weight loss."
When reading food labels, it is important to consider total calories per serving. A food that gets 60 percent of its calories from fat — a large amount — may not be unhealthy if the total number of calories per serving is low. For instance, a food that has 60 calories per serving but gets 60 percent of its calories from fat has only 4 grams of fat per serving. "There are nine calories in every gram of fat, regardless of what type of fat it is," observes the American Heart Association (AHA). "Fats are more energy-dense than carbohydrates and proteins, which provide four calories per gram."
The AHA, too, has shifted its focus from total fat to type of fat. Its most up-to-date dietary guidelines recommend that 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories come from fat. Since every gram of fat contains nine calories, this means that a person who eats 2,000 calories per day should consume fewer than 78 grams of fat daily.
Most of your fat calories should come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, says the AHA. No more than 6 percent of your daily calories should come from unhealthy saturated fatty acids. "Eating too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood," the AHA warns. "A high level of LDL cholesterol in your blood increases your risk of heart disease and stroke."
Low-Fat vs. Low-Carb Diets
Some research shows that a diet composed mostly of calories from fat and protein — in other words, a low-carbohydrate diet — may be more heart-healthy than a diet that is low in fat. "There is some evidence that a low-carbohydrate diet may help people lose weight more quickly than a low-fat diet — and may help them maintain that weight loss," says the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH). "The low-carb diet was [found to be] most beneficial for lowering triglycerides, the main fat-carrying particle in the bloodstream, and also delivered the biggest boost in protective HDL cholesterol."
However, in order for a low-carbohydrate diet to help the heart, your fat and protein selections need to come from healthy sources, adds the HSPH.
The Definition of "Calorie"
The calories in the foods you eat and the beverages you drink each day play a major role in your weight and health status. By definition, calories are units of energy. Calorie-rich food is vital because it gives your body energy to breathe, to walk, to think — to live.
"A calorie is a measurement, just like a teaspoon or an inch," writes the Cleveland Clinic. "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."
When it comes to weight, excess calories cause weight gain, and a lack of calories can cause you to be underweight. Consuming enough, but not too many, calories each day will help your body maintain its delicate energy balance.
While no one can choose perfectly healthy foods 100 percent of the time, understanding the meaning that calories have in your overall health will help you make better choices more often. Choosing lean meats and fruits and vegetables over high-calorie junk food is one way to manage your daily calorie consumption. If you would like help figuring out your optimal daily calorie intake or developing a meal plan, talk to a dietitian or your physician.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "What’s New with the Nutrition Facts Label"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Trans Fat"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Fat and Calories"
- American Heart Association: "Dietary Fats"
- American Heart Association: "The Facts on Fats"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "The Nutrition Source — Low-Carbohydrate Diets"
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