Understanding Calories in Fat

Goose fat, clarified butter, hydrogenated palm oil, duck fat, lard, and margarine

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Many of us keep our eyes on the number of calories and fat grams there are in an ingredient or dish. But it is also important to know how many calories there are in a gram of fat. If you are watching your weight or trying to shed some pounds, only cutting calories may not do the trick if there is a decent amount of fat present in the food you are eating.

Each gram of fat contains nine calories, which is more than double what is found in protein and carbohydrates. In addition to reading labels carefully, understanding exactly what a calorie is will help you make better eating choices.

What Is a Calorie?

A calorie is a unit of energy. When used in reference to food, calories are actually kilocalories or 1000 calories, which is the amount of energy that would raise a kilogram of water by one degree centigrade.

It doesn't matter whether a calorie comes from fat, protein, carbohydrates, or alcohol; it still provides the same amount of energy to your body. However, when you eat more calories than your body can use at one time, it will store the excess calories as fat. That is why exercise helps us lose weight—it burns the calories our bodies did not use naturally.

Note that while all of these foods provide energy, they do not all provide good nutrients. In addition to energy, the body needs vitamins and minerals to operate properly. Eating foods that have a good balance of calories, fat, and nutrients is the best approach to a healthy diet.

Calories From Different Sources

Calories for the body come from fat, carbohydrates, protein, and alcohol. Each of these sources has a different density: fat has nine calories per gram, alcohol has seven calories per gram, and both protein and carbohydrates have four calories per gram. Since fat and alcohol have more calories by weight than proteins and carbohydrates, it is necessary to eat a smaller amount of fatty foods and drink less in order to lower your calorie intake.

kcal per gram of fat
The Spruce Eats / Alex Dos Diaz

Fats in a Healthy Diet

It is important to remember that fat is still an essential part of a healthy diet. Fats are broken down into saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are derived from animal products such as meat and dairy, and a diet high in saturated fat is believed to lead to high cholesterol and health problems. Unsaturated fats have been shown to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, providing valuable health benefits. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, olive oil, canola oil, and avocados. Eaten in moderation (they're still high in calories), these foods are a part of a healthy diet.

Another type of unsaturated fat is trans fat, but this fat is artificially-produced and often used to deep-fry food and to extend shelf-life. Even though it is unsaturated, trans fat has negative health effects.

Reading the Label

The American Heart Association recommends that the calories from fat should be no more than 25 percent to 35 percent of your daily calorie intake. So if you eat a 2,000 calorie diet, you should eat no more than 65 grams of fat per day. Saturated fat should account for no more than five to six percent of total calories.

Choosing foods that are lower in fat, such as "reduced fat," and "low fat," can be a good way to also lower your calorie intake. But it is important to understand what these distinctions mean.

  • Fat-Free: less than half a gram of fat per serving
  • Low Fat: three grams or less of fat per serving
  • Reduced Fat: 25 percent less fat per serving than a comparable product
  • Light: 50 percent less fat than a comparable product