Common criticisms include:
- industry influence,
- overemphasis on certain food groups,
- inadequate consideration of individual needs, and
- conflicts of interest.
But what about nutrient density and satiety?
In this article, we’ll examine whether the Dietary Guidelines:
- will give you enough of the essential nutrients,
- help you manage hunger and increase satiety,
- help you achieve a healthy weight, or
- prevent the many complications that stem from obesity and poor metabolic health.
As you’ll see, following the USDA Dietary Guidelines, compared to choosing random foods, will give you a significantly worse outcome in terms of nutrient density and satiety!
Unfortunately, you’ll need to take matters into your own hands to create a diet that will nourish you and empower you to feel satisfied and energised.
- Who Developed the Dietary Guidelines?
- Industry Conflicts of Interest
- History of the Dietary Guidelines
- The Purpose of the Dietary Guidelines
- Nutrient Density
- Priority Food Groups
- Nutrient Density and Satiety of Food Groups
- Nutrient Density of Priority Food Groups in the Dietary Guidelines
- Nutrient Dense Foods
- What is Nutritional Optimisation?
- How To Prevent Disease Through Nutrition
- The Healthy Eating Index
- Higher Protein % Food Groups
- Saturated Fat
- Unsaturated:Saturated Fat Ratio
- Target Fat Intake for Weight Loss
- What Can You Do?
Who Developed the Dietary Guidelines?
The US Dietary Guidelines are developed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in partnership with the US Department of Health and Human Services.
The US Department of Agriculture works in partnership with industry to create economic opportunities and promote the products of AGRICULTURE produced in the United States.
This is the same USDA that administers the $428 billion Farm Bill that subsidises the production of agricultural products like corn, wheat and soy (but not fruits and vegetables) that are the primary ingredients in ultra-processed foods. These subsidies create so much cheap corn that most of it is used to fatten cattle and make ethanol to fuel cars.
Industry Conflicts of Interest
Everyone has to eat, so food is BIG business. Hence, plenty of people want to influence what we eat.
A 2022 study spearheaded by the Nutrition Coalition showed that 95% of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines committee members had conflicts of interest with food or pharmaceutical industries, including Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills, Dannon, and the International Life Sciences (ILSI).
ILSI, founded by former Coca-Cola executive Alex Malaspina and financed by its 300+ member organisations, including food and chemical companies, had conflicts of interest with 11 board members. One board member was found to have 152 conflicts of interest with 31 companies.
In 2015, the US Congress instigated an external peer review of the Dietary Guidelines by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to ensure the guidelines were credible and trustworthy. A 2023 follow-up report by the NASEM found that the recommendations of the 2015 report had “largely not yet been achieved”.
So, rather than a blueprint for optimal human health or optimal nutrition, it makes more sense to view the Dietary Guidelines as a policy document that sets out how to feed the US population with the crops produced in the US.
History of the Dietary Guidelines
The Dietary Goals for the United States was published in 1977 and morphed into the Dietary Guidelines in 1980. It is updated every five years to reflect the ‘latest science’.
Sadly, Dietary Goals for Americans and the Dietary Guidelines haven’t done much to mitigate the rising obesity epidemic that began with the Green Revolution in the 1960s when modern agricultural practices started to ramp up.
On the contrary, many argue it has made it worse by promoting the products of modern agriculture (e.g., refined corn, soy, grains and oils), which provide more energy with less of the nutrients we need to feel satisfied.
When it comes to obesity rates, the US is in the lead, with the rest of the world following close behind as they adopt the agricultural practices, ultra-processed food and dietary guidelines of the United States.
The Dietary Guidelines is arguably the most influential nutrition document in the world, with many other countries modelling their nutrition guidelines on the US template.
It’s important to note that the Dietary Guidelines explicitly state they are NOT intended to treat chronic diseases (e.g., obesity or diabetes).
The Dietary Guidelines are not a blueprint to help you lose weight.
Instead, the guidelines form the foundation for food purchased by the US government, such as prisons, nursing homes, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), school lunch programs, hospitals, and the army.
It is also the document that dieticians must abide by to maintain their registration.
The Dietary Guidelines claim to translate the nutrient recommendations set by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (i.e. the Dietary Reference Intakes and Adequate Intakes) into food and beverage recommendations.
The introductory messages from the secretaries of the committee contains a grandiose, feel-good call to action to “make every bite count” and “help people make food and beverage choices that are rich in nutrition”.
The Dietary Guidelines use the term ‘nutrient dense’ 159 times. So, you would expect that they would help Americans improve the nutrient density of their food. Sadly, as you’ll see, this is not the case.
Priority Food Groups
To simplify the nutrient recommendations (i.e., the AMDRs, RDAs and AIs), the Dietary Guidelines focus on eating a varied diet from specific food groups:
- vegetables (2.5 cups),
- fruits (2 cups),
- grains (6 ounces),
- dairy (3 cups),
- protein foods (5.5 oz), and
- oils (27 grams).
One first obvious problem with this approach is that each food group contains a wide range of foods that may be more or less optimal for your goals. For example, canned fruit and juice count as fruit, and the sauce on pizza is enough to allow it to be served as a ‘vegetable’ in government-funded school lunches. But maybe they’re loose by design?
Nutrient Density and Satiety of Food Groups
To see how each food group stacks up in terms of nutrient density and satiety, I downloaded the fourteen thousand foods in the USDA Foods Database and calculated the diet quality score and satiety index score for all foods in the database. The table below shows the average for each food group, sorted by diet quality.
|Food Group||Diet Quality||Satiety||Protein|
|Dairy and Egg Products||37%||34%||27%|
|Beans and Lentils||36%||46%||26%|
|Nuts and Seeds||30%||22%||13%|
|Soups and Sauces||28%||39%||19%|
|Grains and Pasta||26%||29%||12%|
|Fats and Oils||8%||9%||1%|
Working from first principles, if your primary goal is to improve your nutrient density or satiety, you should:
- prioritise the food groups towards the top of this table (i.e., meat, fish, veggies, dairy, eggs, beans and lentils).
- reduce the ones towards the bottom (i.e., fats and oils, sweets, calorie-containing beverages and baked foods).
- What is Nutrient Density (and Why It Matters)?
- The Diet Quality Score: Your Ultimate Measure of a Balanced Diet
The Satiety Index Score is a measure of how likely you are to eat more or less of that food based on its nutritional properties, including protein %, energy density, fibre, fat, carbs and micronutrients. For more details, see:
- The Food Satiety Index Score (Updated 2023)
- Crush Your Hunger for Longer: The Biggest Satiety Hacks (and How to Stack Them)
Nutrient Density of Priority Food Groups in the Dietary Guidelines
To understand if the guidelines live up to their claim of prioritising nutrient density, the table below shows the approximate % of calories from each food group recommended by the Dietary Guidelines and the calculated weighted average diet quality score, satiety score and protein %.
|Food group||Amount||Energy||Diet Quality||Satiety||Protein|
|whole grains||3 oz||13%||26%||29%||12%|
|refined grains||3 oz||20%||19%||22%||9%|
|average (all foods)||33%||36%||24%|
|DGA vs average||-5%||-8%||-4%|
Following the USDA Dietary Guidelines will give us a lower score in all three measures compared to the average of the fourteen thousand foods in the USDA Foods Database.
As shown in the table below, emphasising the food groups recommended by the Dietary Guidelines will give you less of most of the vitamins and minerals compared to the average of all foods! You would get a better nutritional outcome by choosing random foods rather than following the guidelines.
|nutrient||DGA vs all foods|
|Pantothenic acid (B5)||-23%|
Weirdly, the Dietary Guidelines also neglected to mention the essential nutrients copper, selenium and manganese, which are less prevalent in the food groups prioritised by the Dietary Guidelines.
So, if improving nutrient density is a goal, the Dietary Guidelines are indeed broken!
Nutrient Dense Foods
The charts below show popular foods in terms of nutrients per calorie vs nutrients per serving.
Foods towards the right will provide more of the essential nutrients per calorie. However, you may not be able to eat a lot of these foods. Hence you won’t get a lot of nutrients from them.
Optimisers often find it more useful to build the foundation of their diet with the foods towards the top of these charts that provide more nutrients in the typical serving sizes we eat. Then, later, they can fill in the remaining nutritional gaps with the foods towards the right.
The charts below highlight the limitations of simplistically thinking in terms of food groups if you want to optimise your nutrition. For example, plant-based foods include everything from spinach and Brussels sprouts to sugar and oils, which are essentially empty calories.
Animal-based foods can provide a ton of nutrients, particularly in the serving sizes we typically consume them.
Dairy and egg products give us bioavailable protein and harder-to-find nutrients like calcium and choline. But more refined versions like butter and cream provide fewer nutrients per calorie.
Seafood also tends to be highly nutritious (until we add oil and bread and fry it up).
If you’re interested, you can find more charts and food lists in our Optimising Nutrition Community for each essential nutrient as well as different goals and dietary preferences.
What is Nutritional Optimisation?
The Dietary Guidelines use a broad-brush approach to outline intakes from priority food groups they believe people should consume. The guideline focus on avoiding ‘bad things’ in food, like sodium and saturated fat, rather than simply getting enough of the essential nutrients you need.
In contrast, at Optimising Nutrition, we like to use a more precise ‘paint by numbers’ approach to ensure that Optimisers get enough of the essential nutrients without excess energy. We call this Nutritional Optimisation.
Whether you prefer a plant-based or carnivorous diet, your body still needs enough of all the essential nutrients with enough, but not too much, energy. Once they hit your stomach, your body doesn’t know or care where the amino acids, minerals and vitamins come from.
Our analysis repeatedly shows that finding the right balance of nutrients vs energy is critical to managing your hunger and cravings. Rather than using broad food groups, Nutritional Optimisation works from first principles to ensure you get the nutrients you need from your food, regardless of your preferences or beliefs around food.
How To Prevent Disease Through Nutrition
The Dietary Guidelines claim to be about health promotion and disease prevention.
Nutrition can get complex quickly, and there seems to be a study to ‘prove’ anything you want to believe. But we believe health and disease prevention primarily ensures you get the essential nutrients without excess energy.
There is a lot of discussion in nutrition circles about how different foods affect the fat and glucose in your blood. The discussion can quickly turn to a discussion about LDL, ApoB, and small dense vs large buoyant LDL, which not even the experts seem to agree on. But the simple reality is, if you have less fat stored in your body, less energy (i.e., fat and glucose) will back up and overflow into your bloodstream.
For more details, see:
- The Personal Fat Threshold Model of Insulin Resistance, Diabetes & Obesity,
- Oxidative Priority: The Key to Unlocking Your Body Fat Stores, and
- What Is Insulin Resistance (and How to Reverse It)?
Most modern diseases we face today relate to energy toxicity and obesity, and an ever-shrinking number of us are metabolically healthy. Whether it be from sugar, saturated fat, starch or unsaturated fat, excess energy from your diet will be stored on your body and worsen your metabolic health.
So, your focus should be on foods and meals that will give you the nutrients you need without excess energy, satisfy your cravings and help you achieve a healthy weight.
Rather than ‘eat less and move more’ or avoiding ‘bad things’ in food, Nutritional Optimisation flips the paradigm to ‘eat better’ by focusing on the foods that will increase satiety while giving you the nutrients that will make you feel energised and want to move more.
The Healthy Eating Index
Although they mention the term ‘nutrient density’ throughout the document, the Dietary Guidelines don’t define or calculate it. But they do have a Healthy Eating Index, which is where things get a little weird.
The USDA developed the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) to assess how well a diet aligns with the Dietary Guidelines. The index consists of 13 components, each assigned a score based on the individual’s intake, as shown in the table below.
|Component||points||maximum score||minimum score|
|Total Fruits||5||> 0.8 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Fruits|
|Whole Fruits||5||> 0.4 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Whole Fruits|
|Total Vegetables||5||> 1.1 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Vegetables|
|Greens and Beans||5||> 0.2 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Dark Green Vegetables or Legumes|
|Whole Grains||10||> 1.5 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Whole Grains|
|Dairy||10||> 1.3 cup equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Dairy|
|Total Protein Foods||5||> 2.5 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Protein Foods|
|Seafood and Plant Proteins||5||> 0.8 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal||No Seafood or Plant Proteins|
|Fatty Acids||10||(PUFAs + MUFAs)/SFAs > 2.5||(PUFAs + MUFAs)/SFAs ?1.2|
|Refined Grains||10||< 1.8 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal||> 4.3 oz equiv. per 1,000 kcal|
|Sodium||10||< 1.1 gram per 1,000 kcal||> 2.0 grams per 1,000 kcal|
|Added Sugars||10||< 6.5% of energy||> 26% of energy|
|Saturated Fats||10||< 8% of energy||> 16% of energy|
As a systems engineer, I thought it would be fun to review the Healthy Eating Index to understand why the Dietary Guidelines give a worse-than-average nutritional outcome.
Let’s dive into some of the key components of the HEI to see how they align with nutrient density and satiety and claimed goal of the guidelines to ‘translate nutrient requirements into eating patterns’.
The MINIMUM protein intake set by the Dietary Guidelines is 0.8 g/kg, which amounts to 46 g of protein for women and 56 g for men.
With the Healthy Eating Index, you get a maximum 5 points (out of 100) for getting more than 2.5 oz of protein foods per 1000 calories.
|Component||points||maximum score||minimum score|
|Total Protein Foods||5||> 2.5 oz equiv per 1,000 kcal||No Protein Foods|
If we assumed that this means 2.5 oz of protein, this would work out to be 29% protein, which is pretty solid, particularly compared to the average 16% protein intake of the average American. For reference, the upper end of the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for adults (who are not trying to lose weight) is 35%.
However, unfortunately, when you read the fine print, ‘protein foods’ include ‘portions of lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas’. So, 2.5 oz per 1000 calories is likely around 14% protein, similar to the current average population intake.
Protein is the most expensive macronutrient with the lowest profit margins, so it makes sense that the protein target is kept low if the goal of the Dietary Guidelines is to keep the cost of food low and maximise profit for its stakeholders.
However, our satiety analysis shows that people who consume a higher protein % tend to eat about half the calories as those who consume the lowest protein %. While not the only factor, protein % is consistently the most dominant parameter in the satiety equation.
Notice towards the far left the average population protein % aligns with the highest calorie intake. But per protein leverage, we continue eating until we get enough protein, regardless of how much energy we need to chew through.
The Dietary Guidelines are not designed to help you lose weight. But if you are part of the growing majority of people who want to lose some unwanted body fat, it will help to dial back energy from carbs and fat while prioritising protein.
In practice, this doesn’t mean you have to eat a LOT more protein, but a little more will help improve satiety and nutrient density and ensures you’re getting enough to preserve your precious lean mass during weight loss. For more detail, see:
- How Much Do You Need to Increase Your Protein % to Lose Weight?
- The Protein Leverage Hypothesis, and
- Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR).
Higher Protein % Food Groups
In our Macros Masterclass, we guide Optimisers to dial up their protein % by dialling back energy from fat and carbs while prioritising protein to increase satiety and lose weight.
While a few hard-core people seem to thrive on 40 – 50% protein, most get solid weight loss results as they work up to 30-40% protein. Once they reach their goal, they simply bring back more energy from fat or carbs to support their activity and maintain their weight.
So, if you wanted to increase your protein %, which food groups would you want to prioritise, and which ones would you want to avoid?
|Food Group||Protein||Diet Quality||Satiety|
|Dairy and Egg||27%||37%||34%|
|Beans and Lentils||26%||36%||46%|
|Soups and Sauces||19%||28%||39%|
|Nuts and Seeds||13%||30%||22%|
|Grains and Pasta||12%||26%||29%|
|Fats and Oils||1%||8%||9%|
The chart below shows the correlation between protein % and nutrient density for the various food groups. Note that grains and pasta, which are a priority in the Dietary Guidelines, don’t rank so well in terms of nutrient density or protein %.
To help Optimisers find foods that contain adequate protein to meet their needs, we created the chart below showing a range of popular foods in terms of grams per serving vs protein %. To increase your protein %, you’ll want to choose foods towards the top. To get more protein, choose foods towards the right.
For more detail, you can dive into the interactive Tableau version of this chart (on your computer) or check out the food lists in our Optimising Nutrition community here. Finally, if you want even more detail, you can dive into the chart of nutrient density vs protein % for all fourteen thousand foods here.
For reference, the top 100 NutriBooster recipes, when ranked for nutrient density, contain around 50% protein. Some examples of the most nutritious recipes are shown below. While not everyone needs to go to this extreme, increasing your protein % will help you get more essential nutrients with less energy.
- The Dietary Guidelines set a minimum of 0.8 g/kg for protein and an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range of 10 to 35% protein.
- Unfortunately, while adequate protein should be the foundation of any diet, protein only gets a 5% weighting in the Healthy Eating Index.
- While the Dietary Guidelines focus is not weight loss, if you are part of the growing majority that wants to lose body fat, it’s smart to dial back energy from fat and/or carbs while prioritising protein, thus increasing your protein %.
While there is no carbohydrate target in the Healthy Eating Index, the Dietary Guidelines include an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for carbohydrates between 45 to 65% of calories.
For reference, the average carbohydrate intake of Americans is about 45%. Ironically, this aligns with the maximum calorie intake in our satiety analysis, as shown in the chart below. This is great for food sales of processed foods that follow this ultra-processed formula, but not so good for our metabolic health or waistline.
The blend of 45% carbohydrate, with most of the rest of the energy from fat, is the formula for ultra-processed foods like cookies, doughnuts and ice cream, which we struggle to stop eating.
We often think of these as the ‘bad carbs’, but they’re readily fat+carb bombs. Fat and carbs together drive a supra-physiological dopamine response that makes us want to buy and eat more of them. As a result, many people feel ‘addicted to’ these foods.
Unfortunately, the Dietary Guidelines recommended carbohydrate intake sets you up for these hyper-palatable carb+fat combo foods.
For reference, our top 100 NutriBooster recipes, when ranked for nutrient density, contain 20% total carbohydrate or 13% non-fibre carbohydrates, which happens to align with the lowest calorie intake on the chart above.
To the right of the carb vs calorie chart above, we see that a very low-fat, high-carb diet is harder to overeat than the 45% carb diet with the rest of the energy from fat. It’s hard to overeat high-carb foods like rice and potatoes without added oil.
But to the left, the lowest calorie intake occurs at 10-20% non-fibre carbohydrates. People tend to consume around 17% fewer calories when they move away from the fat+carbs danger to a lower carbohydrate diet. Low carbohydrate diets also tend to contain more protein, which, as mentioned above, is the most satiating macronutrient.
As shown in the chart below, from a nutrient-density perspective, some of the highest-carb foods are also the least nutritious (for more detail, see the nutrient density vs satiety Tableau chart here).
As noted above, the Dietary Guidelines are not intended to treat health conditions like diabetes. However, if your blood glucose rises above the healthy range after you eat (e.g., more than 30 mg/dL or 1.6 mmol/L), dialling back your carbohydrates to achieve more stable blood glucose levels makes sense.
For more details, see:
- Reactive Hypoglycemia: Symptoms, Causes & Dietary Solutions
- How to Optimise Type-1 Diabetes Management (Without Losing Your Mind)
Many people thrive on a very low-fat, high, carbohydrate diet. Some even alternate between low-fat and low-carb meals while steering clear of the hyperpalatable fat+carb danger zone. But most of us naturally gravitate to the fat+carb combo foods at the lower end of the AMDR for carbohydrates.
Many have been campaigning for a lower carb option to be acknowledged by the Dietary Guidelines, particularly for people managing diabetes who have to inject large boluses of insulin to cover the recommended intake of grains. But this would likely require relaxing the 10% limit on saturated fat, which we’ll discuss below.
- We tend to eat the most when our diet is around 45% non-fibre carbohydrates, which is the lower end of the Dietary Guidelines’ AMDR for carbohydrates.
- To avoid overeating, you want to stay on one side or the other of the carb+fat danger zone (i.e., above 55% carbs or less than 40%).
- To lose weight, it’s smart to move towards 20% carbohydrates while prioritising protein and nutrients from your food.
In the Healthy Eating Index, we get 10 points for minimising sodium to less than 1.1 g/1000 calories. However, it’s worth noting that, despite the Dietary Guidelines not being intended to treat chronic disease, they have selected the Chronic Disease Reduction Level (CDDR) for sodium, intended for people with high blood pressure.
Meanwhile, the Adequate Intake of sodium set by the National Academy of Medicine in 2019 is 3.8g/day, higher than the 2.3 g/day CRRD level adopted by the Dietary Guidelines.
Additionally, many studies have shown that prioritising foods containing more potassium tend to be more helpful than simply limiting sodium for people with elevated blood pressure.
For more details, see:
The dairy and egg food group is where things start to get weirder, which ranks third after meat and seafood in terms of nutrient density and protein %.
|protein (%)||satiety||nutrient density|
|Dairy and Egg Products||27%||34%||37%|
Despite being a recommended food group and a major contributor to calories, dairy and eggs have the highest percentage of energy from saturated fat and have a low unsaturated:saturated fat ratio.
|SFA (%)||MUFA (%)||PUFA (%)||unsat:sat|
|Dairy and Egg Products||24.8%||12.5%||2.7%||0.9|
So, according to the Healthy Eating Index, if you prioritise dairy to get 10 points, you’ll be penalised 20 points for failing the fatty acids and saturated fat categories!
The saturated fat target of less than 10% is unique to the Dietary Guidelines. It is not part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s nutrient targets. Instead, it seems to be added by the Dietary Guidelines Committee.
In the Healthy Eating Index, we get 10 points for minimising saturated fat compared to 5 points for getting a meagre amount of protein.
The average saturated fat in all the foods in the USDA food database is 11%. However, the saturated fat of the weighted USDA food groups is 14% because of the emphasis on dairy! So, even the Dietary Guidelines seem to struggle to meet their target for saturated fat.
For reference, our Optimisers, who are getting an average of 46% fat, are consuming an average of 17% saturated fat.
From a historical perspective, saturated fat has declined (from 15.7 to 12.5% of our energy) since the Green Revolution of the 1960s. In contrast, polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat have each risen by about 300 calories per person per day!
If the guidelines were intended to help people lose weight (which they’re not), it would be weird to be promoting the forms of fat that appear to have helped fuel the obesity epidemic.
The dietary guidelines highlight that the main sources of saturated fat are ‘sandwiches’ (i.e., burgers) and desserts.
So, it’s understandable that they want to limit the consumption of these ‘foods’. Saturated fat is often associated with junk food and is implicated in heart disease.
People note saturated fat is solid at room temperature, so it must be artery-clogging.
But if your arteries or blood is at room temperature, you have bigger problems on your hands – you’re DEAD!
A 2017 study in the BMJ concluded that “despite the popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong.”
The relationship between saturated fat and heart disease is hotly debated, often based on how it affects LDL cholesterol rather than hard endpoints. A 2010 meta-analysis of 21 studies concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with increased risk of CHD or CVD”.
This is not to say that you can eat unlimited amounts of fat just because it is saturated. As shown in the chart below, the highest-fat food groups are not the most nutritious, but neither are the lowest.
So long as you’re managing your overall energy intake by prioritising nutritious and satiating foods, saturated fat will look after itself. Additionally, compared to total fat, saturated fat is a weak signal in terms of satiety and nutrient density.
Our satiety analysis suggests that (up to around 30%) people who consume more saturated fat consume more energy. However, interestingly, people who get above 30% tend to consume fewer calories. This drop-off at higher intakes may be because the saturated fat is contained in foods like cheese rather than combined with other types of fat and refined carbohydrates in junk food.
For reference, our top 100 NutriBooster recipes, when sorted by nutrient density, contain a meagre 4.7% saturated fat. So, as you get more nutrients with less energy, your saturated fat intake will drop. But if you do not want to lose weight, you will still need some energy.
There’s no need to go out of your way to avoid saturated fat by avoiding nutritious foods containing saturated fat if it compromises your ability to get protein and other nutrients. But you also shouldn’t treat saturated fat as a ‘free food’ that you can eat in unlimited quantities.
Instead, if you prioritise the essential nutrients without excess energy from carbs and fat, your saturated fat intake will look after itself.
Unsaturated:Saturated Fat Ratio
Next, we come to the 10 points in the Healthy Eating given to the ratio of polyunsaturated fat + monounsaturated fat vs saturated fats. You get full points for getting higher than 2.5 and fail if your ratio exceeds 1.2.
|Component||points||maximum score||minimum score|
|Fatty Acids||10||(PUFAs + MUFAs)/SFAs > 2.5||(PUFAs + MUFAs)/SFAs < 1.2|
Similar to the limit on saturated fat, this ratio is not part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s nutritional recommendations. Instead, it seems to be an extra added by the Dietary Guidelines Committee.
It can be argued that unsaturated fat has benefits over saturated fat. However, from a historical perspective, we have been trending from a low to high unsaturated:saturated fat ratio over the past century as processed oils have become more prevalent in our food system.
The table below shows the food groups sorted by unsaturated:saturated fat ratio.
|Food Group||unsaturated:saturated||satiety||nutrient density|
|Nuts and Seeds||6.1||22%||30%|
|Beans and Lentils||4.5||46%||36%|
|Fats and Oils||4.3||9%||8%|
|Grains and Pasta||3.5||29%||26%|
|Soups and Sauces||2.4||39%||28%|
|Dairy and Egg||0.9||34%||37%|
Similar to saturated fat, the ratio of fats doesn’t seem to make a big difference in terms of nutrient density or satiety. Whole foods naturally contain a healthy blend of each of the different types of fats.
If anything, food groups with more unsaturated fat relative to saturated fat have a lower nutrient density. The outlier in the chart below is sweets, but you won’t overdo them if you prioritise nutrient density.
We see a similar trend when we look at our 1400+ NutriBooster recipes. The unsaturated:saturated fat ratio doesn’t make a big difference in terms of nutrient density or satiety.
However, prioritising unsaturated fats will make getting a healthy omega 6:3 ratio harder.
The recommendation to prioritise unsaturated fats seems weird when monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat has increased for the last century since we worked out how to create hydrogenated seed oils from industrial crops turbocharged by synthetic fertilisers. This seems like a convenient recommendation for the benefit of the food industry to promote ‘heart-healthy’ fats that have added a ton of energy to our food system.
Our satiety analysis shows that saturated fat is not statistically correlated with eating more or less when we also consider protein. Instead, starch and monounsaturated fat align with eating more, particularly when combined. For more details, see:
- Ultra-Processed Foods: What’s the Problem and How to Avoid Them
- Monounsaturated Fat: Is It So “Good” After All?,
- Crush Your Hunger for Longer: The Biggest Satiety Hacks (and How to Stack Them), and
- Omega-6 Fat: Are You Getting Too Much of a ‘Good Thing’?
Target Fat Intake for Weight Loss
When discussing one merit of one type of fat vs another, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that fat is simply a source of energy. We need some energy, but not too much, especially if we’re trying to lose weight.
The chart below shows the satiety response to fat, showing that as the % of fat in our diet increases, we eat more. Therefore, if you want to eat less to lose weight, your goal should be to dial back energy from fat and/or carbohydrates while prioritising adequate protein, minerals and vitamins.
The chart below shows the distribution of fat % from 147,527 days of data from Optimiers. On average, we see an average of 46% fat with a 15th percentile fat intake of 35%.
If your goal was to lose weight, you could progressively dial your fat % down towards 35%. As you do this, your unsaturated and saturated fat will reduce, so you won’t need to fret about getting too much of anything.
If you’re eager to micromanage your saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat intake, the chart below shows some realistic stretch targets for total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated.
|average (%)||stretch target (%)|
What Can You Do?
So, if we believe that the Dietary Guidelines are primarily designed by the US Department of Agriculture to promote the products of US agriculture and have dropped the ball when it comes to improving nutrient density, what can we do to optimise our diet to align with our goals?
Whether or not you want to lose weight, you require enough protein and essential nutrients. But if you are part of the majority of people who want to lose some extra body fat, you need to find a way to pack more of the nutrients that will satisfy your cravings into your current energy budget.
Become an Optimiser
We’re eager to make the process of Nutritional Optimisation as simple as possible. We’d love you to start your journey today!
- Food Lists – optimised for each essential nutrient, goals, preferences and conditions.
- The Healthiest Meal Plan in the World – see what a week of nutrient-dense eating looks like.
- Recipes – check out samples of each of our NutriBosoter recipe books.
- 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge – identify your priority nutrients and the foods and meals that contain them.