- Over one in three people seek out “low fat” or “reduced fat” foods or beverages, with dairy being the most common food category for low–fat options.
- Many say that their perceptions of the healthfulness of dietary fat depend on the type of food it’s found in.
- Most people are trying to limit their fat intake at least some of the time—both total and saturated fat.
- When it comes to dietary fat, there are distinct differences in perceptions and eating behaviors based on age: people in the youngest age bracket (under age 45) are less likely to be limiting fat consumption, are more open to higher–fat products, and think more favorably about all types of fat.
Over the past few years, it might seem like we’ve come a long way in our perceptions of dietary fat. Avocadoes, omega-3-rich fish and nuts and seeds are welcomed parts of a balanced diet, and fad diets like keto and Paleo that focus on higher fat intakes continue to be popular in certain health circles. But have people really cast aside the deeply ingrained fear of fat that dominated the nutrition conversation years ago? To answer this question, we set out to learn more about purchasing and eating behaviors, as well as health perceptions of dietary fats and oils, by surveying 1,000 American adults. Here are some key takeaways:
Over one in three seek out “low fat” or “reduced fat” foods or beverages, while only one in ten seek out full–fat products. When survey takers were asked if they seek out products with different labels related to their fat content, 36% said they seek out low–fat products and 35% reported looking for reduced–fat foods and beverages. In contrast, just 11% said they seek out full–fat products and 29% said they don’t seek out foods and beverages with descriptions of their fat content. People under 45 were more likely to seek out “full fat” products, while those ages 45–64 were less likely to do so. People above age 65 and college-educated people were more likely to seek out products labeled as “low in saturated fat.”
Consumers are split on whether they would choose a higher–fat version of a product over a lower-fat version. When given a scenario in which there were two products that differed only in their fat content—one that was higher in total fat and one that was lower in total fat—36% said they would consider choosing the higher-fat product, while 38% said they would not. People under age 45 and Hispanic/Latinx people were more likely to say that they’d consider choosing a higher-fat product; people ages 65 and older were less likely to do so.
Half say that healthfulness perceptions of fat depend on the type of food. Survey takers were asked again to imagine that they were choosing between two products that differ only in their fat content— one full–fat and the other a low-fat version. When asked which they thought was healthier, 12% said that the full–fat version of the product would always be healthier than the low-fat version, while 29% said that the low-fat version would always be healthier. The largest group (51%), however, said that their perceptions of healthfulness related to fat content would depend on the type of food. Again, results differed by age: younger people were more likely to say that the full–fat version of a product is always healthier, while older age groups were much less likely to say so.
When it comes to the types of lower–fat products people are choosing, dairy is the most sought–out. Over half of survey respondents said that they choose low–fat dairy over higher-fat or full-fat varieties of the same product. Meat and poultry and snack foods were next-highest on the list, with 36% saying that they choose low-fat versions. People were least likely to choose low-fat non-dairy desserts (19%), bakery items (18%) and candy or chocolate (17%).
Olive oil is believed to be the healthiest fat or oil for cooking. Nearly seven in ten respondents (69%) said that olive oil was among the top three fats or oils they perceived to be healthiest. This was nearly twice the number of people who chose the next-most–popular options: avocado oil or canola oil (36% each), followed by coconut oil (34%) and vegetable oil (30%). Slightly less than one in four people chose butter in their top–three healthiest fats and oils, while options including soybean oil (14%), corn oil (12%), ghee (8%) and lard (3%) were among the least-commonly selected. Here again, there were key differences between gender: Women were more likely than men to think that olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil are healthiest, while men were more likely to think that vegetable and corn oil are healthiest.
Nearly three in five try to limit total fat in their diet, with 13% always trying to limit total fat and 44% limiting it at least some of the time. Just 4% reported trying to increase the amount of total fat they are trying to consume, with people under age 45 more likely to be doing so. Those under 45 are also less likely to be trying to limit total fat intake at least some of the time.
Even more are trying to limit saturated fat in their diet. Sixty-three percent of survey takers reported trying to limit saturated fat intake at least some of the time, with 21% always trying to do so and 42% doing so at least some of the time. Like their actions around total fat, people under age 45 are less likely to be trying to limit saturated fat.
People take a variety of actions to limit fat consumption. For those who were trying to limit total and/or saturated fat in their diets, we followed up to ask them how they were doing so. The behaviors were diverse, ranging from avoiding foods known to be high in fat (49%), to choosing foods with healthier types of fat (44%) to no longer adding fat to foods (15%). People under age 45 were less likely to be avoiding foods high in fat, using cooking techniques with less fat and seeking reduced-fat foods and beverages, while people in the 65–and–over age bracket were more likely to be doing the two latter responses.
Most people are confident that they know how much saturated fat they consume. Fifteen percent of survey takers were very confident in their knowledge of their saturated fat intake and another 45% were at least somewhat confident.
Change in healthfulness perceptions of dietary fats is mixed. When asked how their opinions on the healthfulness of saturated fat, unsaturated fat and fat overall had changed over the last ten years, many (ranging from 43% for fat overall to 50% for unsaturated fats) said that their opinion hadn’t changed. Saturated fat had the highest number of people who said they now have a less favorable opinion than they did in 2010 (38%) and the lowest number of people who said their opinion was more favorable now. People under 45 again shared different perspectives than older age groups: they were more likely to say that they now have a more favorable opinion on the healthfulness of fat overall, as well as of saturated fat and unsaturated fat individually.
One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from April 29–30, 2020, and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.