The percentage of dietary energy from fat has been suggested to be an important determinant of body fat, and this presumed effect has been invoked to justify the general promotion of low-fat diets. Dietary fat and the prevalence of obesity are lower in poor countries than in affluent countries. However, these contrasts are seriously confounded by differences in physical activity and food availability; within areas of similar economic development, per capita intake of fat and the prevalence of obesity have not been positively correlated. Randomized trials are the preferable method for evaluating the effect of dietary fat on adiposity because they avoid problems of confounding that are difficult to control in other studies. In short-term trials, a small reduction in body weight is typically seen in individuals randomized to diets with a lower percentage of calories from fat. In a meta-analysis of these trials, it was estimated that a decrease in 10% of energy from fat would reduce weight by 16 g d-1, which would correspond to a 9-kg weight loss by 18 months. However, compensatory mechanisms appear to operate because in trials lasting one year or longer, fat consumption within the range of 18-40% of energy has consistently had little, if any, effect on body fatness. Moreover, within the United States (US), a substantial decline in the percentage of energy from fat during the last two decades has corresponded with a massive increase in obesity, and similar trends are occurring in other affluent countries. Diets high in fat do not account for the high prevalence of excess body fat in Western countries; reductions in the percentage of energy from fat will have no important benefits and could further exacerbate this problem. The emphasis on total fat reduction has been a serious distraction in efforts to control obesity and improve health in general.