6.7 – Balancing Your Dietary Lipids

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the recommended intake levels of lipids and identify strategies for modifying saturated fat, and trans fat intake.
  • Explain the relationship of dietary lipids to chronic disease.
  • Identify foods high in monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, and cholesterol.
  • Discuss the functions of essential fatty acids, such as omega-3, and where to find them in foods.
  • Describe dietary measures to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease with a focus on the Mediterranean Diet.



You may reason that if some fats are healthier than other fats, why not consume as much healthy fat as desired? Remember, everything in moderation. As we review the established guidelines for daily fat intake, the importance of balancing fat consumption with proper fat sources will be explained.

Recommended Fat Intake

The acceptable macronutrient distribution range (A.M.D.R.) from the Dietary Reference Intake Committee for adult fat consumption is as follows1:

  • Fat calories should make up 20–35 percent of total calories with most fats coming from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as those found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • Consume fewer than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. Some studies suggest that lowering the saturated fat content to less than 7 percent can further reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Keep the consumption of trans fats (any food label that reads hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil) to a minimum, less than 1 percent of calories.
  • Think lean when selecting meat, poultry, milk, and milk products.

The current A.M.D.R. for child and adolescent fat consumption (for children over four) are as follows:

  • For children between ages four and eighteen years, between 25 and 35 percent of caloric intake should be from fat.

For all age groups, most fats should come from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.

1 Institute of Medicine. “Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients.” Accessed June 21, 2019.


Identifying Sources of Fat

Population-based studies of American diets have shown that intake of saturated fat is more excessive than the intake of trans fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat is a prominent source of fat for most people as it is so easily found in animal fats, tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil, and full-fat dairy products. Oftentimes the fat in the diet of an average person comes from foods such as cheese, pizza, cookies, chips, desserts, and animal meats such as chicken, burgers, sausages, and hot dogs. To aim for healthier dietary choices, the American Heart Association (A.H.A.) recommends choosing lean meats and vegetable alternatives, choosing dairy products with low-fat content, and minimizing the intake of trans fats. The A.H.A. guidelines also recommend consuming fish, especially oily fish, at least twice per week. American Heart Association. “Frequently Asked Questions About Fish.” These more appropriate dietary choices will allow for enjoyment of a wide variety of foods while providing the body with the recommended levels of fat from healthier sources. Evaluate the following sources of fat in your overall dietary pattern:

  • Monounsaturated fat. This type of fat is found in plant oils. Common sources are nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and walnuts) and nut products, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, high oleic safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil.
  • Polyunsaturated fat. This type of fat is found mainly in plant-based foods, oils, and fish. Common sources are nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, and peanuts), soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and fish (trout, herring, and salmon).
  • Saturated fat. This fat is found in animal products, dairy products, palm and coconut oils, and cocoa butter. Limit these products to less than 10 percent of your overall dietary fat consumption.
  • Trans fatty acids. Stick margarine, fast foods, commercial baked goods, and some snack foods contain trans fats. Limit your consumption of these products to keep trans fats to less than 1 percent of your fat consumption.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic acid). Good sources of these are canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and green leafy vegetables.
  • D.H.A. and E.P.A.. Good sources of these are cod liver oil and fish such as tuna, herring, mackerel, salmon, and trout.
  • Omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid). Eggs, poultry, most vegetable oils, wheat germ oil, whole grains, baked goods, and cereals contain these fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are present abundantly in nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and watermelon seeds.
Veggie burger on bun with lettuce, tomato, onion and sprouts.
Figure 6.7.1 Veggie burger
By Melissa / CC BY


Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Recall that the body requires fatty acids and is able to synthesize the majority of these from fat, protein, and carbohydrate. However, when we say essential fatty acid we are referring to the two fatty acids that the body cannot create on its own, namely, linolenic acid and linoleic acid.

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids. At the helm of the omega-3 fatty acid, family is linolenic acid. From this fatty acid, the body can make eicosapentaenoic acid (E.P.A.) and docosahexaenoic acid (D.H.A.). Linolenic acid is found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and vegetable oil such as soybean, canola, and flaxseed. E.P.A. and D.H.A. are found abundantly in fatty fish.
  • Omega-6 Fatty Acids. At the helm of the omega-6 fatty acid, family is linoleic acid. Like linolenic acid, the body uses linoleic acid to make other important substances such as arachidonic acid (A.R.A.) that is used to make eicosanoids. Recall that eicosanoids perform critical roles in the body as they affect a broad spectrum of functions. The word eicosanoid originates from the Greek word eicosa, meaning twenty because this hormone is derived from A.R.A. that is twenty carbon atoms in length. Eicosanoids affect the synthesis of all other body hormones and control all body systems, such as the central nervous system and the immune system. Among the many functions eicosanoids serve in the body, their primary function is to regulate inflammation. Without these hormones, the body would not be able to heal wounds, fight infections, or fight off illness each time a foreign germ presented itself. Eicosanoids work together with the body’s immune and inflammation processes to play a major role in several important body functions, such as circulation, respiration, and muscle movement.


Increase Your Intake of omega-3 Fatty Acids

As our food choices evolve, the sources of omega-6 fatty acids in our diets are increasing at a much faster rate than sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are plentiful in diets of unprocessed foods where grazing animals and foraging chickens roam free, eating grass, clover, alfalfa, and grass-dwelling insects. In contrast, today’s western diets are bombarded with sources of omega-6. For example, we have oils derived from seeds and nuts and from the meat of animals that are fed grain. Vegetable oils used in fast-food preparations, most snack-foods, cookies, crackers, and sweet treats are also loaded with omega-6 fatty acids. Our bodies synthesize eicosanoids from omega-6 fatty acids that are needed to increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids have just the opposite effect.

What does this mean for you? If your diet is low in omega-3 fats, to begin with, then most of your essential fatty acids are from omega-6s. You will want to follow the guideline to increase your choices of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.


Key Takeaways

  • The recommended fat intake for adults is 20–35 percent of your total caloric intake. Saturated fat must be less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake, and lowering this to 7 percent can further reduce the risks for heart disease. Trans fat should be less than 1 percent of total caloric intake.
  • Nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and vegetable oil such as soybean, canola, and flaxseed are excellent sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
  • The polyunsaturated fatty acids linolenic and linoleic acids are used by the body to make substances that carry out many vital functions in the body.
  • The omega-3 fatty-acid family includes linolenic acid, E.P.A., and D.H.A.. The omega-6 fatty-acid family includes linoleic acid and A.R.A.. D.H.A. and A.R.A. play crucial roles in the brain and eye development. E.P.A. and D.H.A. found in fatty fish play important roles in inflammation reduction and disease prevention.
  • Many people consume too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats are precursors to eicosanoids that have opposing properties. A proper balance between both must be obtained to avoid health problems.


Discussion Starters

  1. State the recommended intake of total fat, as well as saturated versus unsaturated fat, in the diet.
  2. List sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
  3. Summarize the important functions of essential fatty acids in the human body.
  4. Explain why it is necessary to increase the intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
  5. Record a food diary for one week. What foods do you most often consume? What type of fat dominates your diet? How can you alter your eating habits to promote better health? Outline steps you can take to replace saturated and trans fat in your diet.


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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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