Are We Getting Too Much Fat in Our Diet?

U.S. Dietary Guidelines for adults call for 20 to 35% of calories to be in the form of dietary fat. But those of us on a whole foods, plant-based diet who have studied the works of Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. T. Colin Campbell believe that it's even more important to limit dietary fats to less than 10% of calories. And many of us think that we're doing that. So, what if I told you that we may not be? In fact, what if I told you that many on a WFPB diet aren't even meeting the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for dietary fat intake? Many could be innocently exceeding all those values.

It's an important question because I often meet people who tell me that they've followed a WFPB diet but they haven't lost any weight. And it's true that they're not eating any meat, dairy products or oils. And yet they still struggle.

I believe the problem could be dietary fat. And I believe that getting dietary fat to under 10% of calories is as important as giving up meat and dairy products for getting our health in order. Dr. Esselstyn has shown how dietary fat not only causes heart disease but the lack of it can reverse heart disease. Diabetes experts now acknowledge that controlling dietary fat is important to controlling diabetes. And of course, reducing dietary fat reduces weight.

The problem is, however, that it's extremely easy to lull ourselves into the belief that we are following a healthy diet when in fact, our dietary fat intake exceeds that of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. I know because I've done it myself. I've come to realize that whenever I plateau on my weight loss I've generally done something that has caused my dietary fat intake to increase.

Let me show you just how easy it is for this to happen. In his book, The 80/10/10 Diet, Dr. Douglas N. Graham talks about being asked by a woman to analyze her diet. She believed that she was eating a healthy diet of 2,400 calories, most of which was fruits and vegetables. Dr. Graham found that her diet was actually 45% fat (as a percentage of daily calories consumed). That's well above the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for fat consumption and four and a half times the maximum allowed under a WFPB diet.

Here's what she ate each day in addition to the low-fat fruits and vegetables that she was eating.

  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 2 oz. of walnuts
  • 2 medium avocados
  • 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds

Just eating those few small things bumped her fat intake up each day to a whopping 45% of calories. And that's somebody who was trying to follow a healthy diet. Many vegans exceed even that amount of dietary fat in their diets.

Now I know what you're saying. "I don't eat 2 avocados a day," so obviously that woman's situation doesn't apply to me. Okay, I'll give you that. You only eat 1/2 an avocado each day and you don't touch olive oil. But what else do you do instead? Do you liberally sprinkle flax seed or chia seeds on your food? That's fat. Do you have a little larger helping of nuts than 2 oz.? That's more fat. Do you use a vinaigrette, the definition of which is a salad dressing made with oil, wine vinegar and seasonings. In other words, it too is fat. Or maybe you eat crackers made with flaxseeds. Fat.

Get the picture? It's not at all hard to get too much fat. I know because I often times find my dietary fat intake creeping up and I have to dial it back. Here's what should be understood:

  • Fruits, vegetables and legumes contribute about 5 to 7% of our daily fat caloric intake. 
  • If we're trying to stay under 10%, then that leaves only 72 to 120 calories that can be derived from other sources.
  • That would allow only one of the following each day:
    • 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of olive oil (or oil spray) -- which we do not recommend
    • 2 to 3 tablespoons of flax seed
    • 5 to 10 walnut halves
    • 1/3rd to 1/2 of an avocado
So, for example. if you put a few drops of olive oil on your salad each day, a couple tablespoons of flaxseed on your oatmeal and then have a mid-afternoon snack of walnuts, then on a 2,400 calorie a day diet, you've just bumped your fat intake up to 20% of your daily calories. And if you add 1/2 an avocado, then you're up to approximately 25% of calories from fat.

But hey! That's still within the government's guidelines for the standard American diet. We just can't kid ourselves into thinking that we're following the recommendations for a WFPB diet. And that's why I have to continually scale back when I find myself snacking on too many nuts or putting a little extra flaxseed on my oatmeal. You may want to see if you need to scale back as well.