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Diseases & Conditions

Fat and Calories

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 all of the attention?

Fat gets all 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.

Will I lose weight if I eat low-fat foods?

It's true that a diet high in fat can lead to weight gain. But it takes more than just eating low-fat foods to lose weight. You must also watch how many total calories you eat. Remember, extra calories even from fat-free and low-fat foods can get stored in the body as body fat. Choosing low-fat options is a good idea to help reduce total caloric intake, but also pay attention to caloric intake from carbohydrate and protein, too.

To lose weight, you need to have a calorie deficit. You can achieve this by eating less fat and fewer calories, and exercising. Exercise burns calories. (Consult with your health care provider before starting an exercise or diet program.)

How much fat should I eat?

A low-fat style of eating is important for maintaining a healthy weight and preventing heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends limiting total calories from fat to 25-35 percent. That's about 65 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. Choose a brand that has a lower fat percentage. (The daily percentage value is based on a number of calories listed on the nutrition label, usually 2,000. Your calorie needs may be higher or lower.)
  • Learn about the foods you eat. Fat and calorie listings for individual foods can be found in nutrition books at your local library and on food packages.

How many grams of fat should I eat each day?

If you eat this many calories daily: Eat no more than this many fat grams daily (based on 30% calories from fat)
1,200 40
1,500 50
1,800 60
2,000 65
2,200 73
2,500 83

Label claims

Some food labels make claims such as "low cholesterol" or "low-fat." These claims can only be used if a food meets strict government definitions. Here are some meanings:

Label claim Definition (per serving size)
Fat-free or sugar-free Less than 0.5 grams of fat or sugar
Low-fat 3 grams or less of fat
Reduced fat or reduced sugar At least 25% less fat or sugar
Cholesterol-free Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Reduced cholesterol At least 25% less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
Calorie-free Less than 5 calories
Low calorie 40 calories or less
Light or lite One-third fewer calories or 50% less fat; if more than half the calories come from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more

Where can I learn more?

References

© Copyright 1995-2012 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

Can't find the health information you’re looking for?

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/24/2012...#4182