Breaking Down The Nutrition Panel: Fats

Close up of avocado
Written by Jen Scheinman, MS, RDN

In the ’80s and ’90s, as the rates of obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses were climbing, fat became the dietary scapegoat. Americans were told to shun fat, focusing their attention on low-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods, with no concern for the quality of the food they were eating. Low-fat chips, cookies, and other snack foods lined the supermarket shelves, and we indulged in all of them thinking we were making the healthier choice. Yet as our waistlines grew and chronic illness continued to sky-rocket, it became clear that fat was not the villain.

The truth is, not all fats are created equal, and while some types can contribute to health issues, others are needed for good health. In this month’s Nutrient Profile, we’ll explore the confusing world of fat and help shed some light on how to include this macronutrient healthily.

Why We Need Fat
Fat is an essential part of the diet, meaning we must eat it to be healthy. It plays many important roles, including helping us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, providing us with energy, and playing a role in hormone production [1]. With all these crucial functions, how did fat get such a bad rap?

One reason is that fat is much more nutrient-dense than the other macronutrients. Protein and carbohydrates both have four calories per gram, and fat has nine[2]. This led many to demonize fat as “fattening” and create the belief that we should replace fat with carbohydrates. While there are more calories in a gram of fat than in carbs or protein, it does not mean that eating fat makes you fat. In fact, numerous studies have shown that both low-fat and high-fat diets can be helpful in weight loss and that one approach is not necessarily better than the other [3]. While consuming more calories than you burn can lead to weight gain, fat itself is not the cause.

A second reason is its link to heart disease. However, only certain types of fat harm heart health. Read on to learn more.

Decoding the Nutrition Facts Panel
The types of fat that occur in food and how it relates to our health can be confusing. Fats are named by the saturation level, which is a description of their chemical makeup. The following is what you will see on the Nutrition Facts label.

Total Fat
The first thing you’ll notice on the Nutrition Facts label is the total grams of fat in a serving of what you are eating and the % Daily Value (DV). The DV for fat is 78 grams, and this number is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. This value is not meant to be prescriptive. Instead, it acts as a guide based on how many calories you should eat a day.

Saturated Fat
Many studies link saturated fats to heart disease, although recent research has put this theory into question [4][5]. Even so, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats, with only 5-6% of your calories coming from them[6]. You’ll find these types of fats in animal products like full-fat dairy, meat, and poultry, and they are usually solid at room temperature.

While coconut oil is a saturated fat, many of the fatty acids are medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). Studies suggest that these types of fats offer many health benefits. They may suppress appetite and support weight management, as well as have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, they offer antimicrobial properties[7].

The total grams of saturated fat in the product will be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel, along with the %DV. The Daily Value for saturated fats is 20 grams[8].

Trans Fat
Trans fats can be found naturally in food, or they can be artificially made. A high intake of trans fats from artificial sources such as foods with partially-hydrogenated oils has been linked to heart disease, so the FDA has mandated that companies no longer use these fats in processed foods. While this mandate occurred back in 2015, a grace period was provided to companies to allow them time to reformulate their products. As of January 1st, 2020 companies should be in compliance with the FDA’s rule and artificial trans fats should no longer be found in manufactured foods[9].

Polyunsaturated Fat
These types of fat are beneficial for your health, and replacing saturated fats with them can lower cholesterol and your risk of heart disease1. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats that our bodies can’t make, so we must eat them: omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. We get omega 3 fatty acids from fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and from nuts and seeds like walnuts, flax, and chia seeds. These fats are powerful anti-inflammatory agents and should be consumed regularly in the diet.

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in a lot of the oils we cook with, like canola, soy, and vegetable oils, as well as many nuts and seeds. Processed and prepared foods including restaurant meals usually use these oils so Americans have an imbalance in the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Excess consumption of omega-6 fatty acids can promote low-grade inflammation so it’s a good idea to limit them in the diet where we can[10]. Avoid using these oils as cooking oils and instead, use olive oil (for low heat cooking), avocado oil, coconut oil, and butter and ghee.

Monounsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fats also have a beneficial effect on heart health and should be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. Olives, avocado, and their respective oils are a great source of this type of fat. Nuts and seeds are also rich in monounsaturated fat.

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in our blood. It was once believed that diets high in cholesterol led to elevated serum cholesterol; however, recent research suggests this is no longer the case[11]. Still, the FDA has set a Daily Value for cholesterol at 70 mg[12]. Foods high in cholesterol are animal products such as eggs, shellfish, cheese, and red meat.

The Bottom Line
In general, we want to increase our consumption of unsaturated fats and limit our intake of saturated fats. Nuts and seeds, like those used in Munk Pack Keto Nut & Seed Bars, are a great source of these healthy fats. Research suggests that regularly consuming nuts may have a lower risk of heart disease[13] and I can think of no yummier way to accomplish this than with Munk Pack’s bars.


Up Next: Breaking Down The Nutrition Panel: Calories