Fat: Good or Bad for Diabetics?
Are fats healthy or unhealthy for people with diabetes? You may have heard a lot of conflicting information about fat. Fat has a bad reputation for being harmful, but believe it or not, your body needs fat to function properly, and there are healthy fats. We’re here to help explain the difference between various types of fat. By the end of this section, you’ll have a better understanding of how fats fit into a healthy lifestyle with diabetes.
Fat may be the second most important nutrient for people with diabetes to monitor in their diets behind carbohydrate. The fat you eat has an effect on weight management, which is a goal for many people with type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular health. All fats, regardless of type, are high in calories, so it’s important to keep an eye on portion size when eating foods that contain fat.
The type of fat you eat is more important that the total amount of fat. There are healthy and unhealthy kinds of fat. Healthy fats include unsaturated fats (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and omega-3 fatty acids; these fats have heart-protective properties. Cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) complications are a concern for people with diabetes; limiting the intake of saturated and trans fats — the unhealthy fats — and choosing healthy fats instead is a step toward reducing the risk of heart disease in people with diabetes.
Saturated and trans fats are known as the unhealthy fats. Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease. People with diabetes are already at an increased risk for cardiovascular complications, but you can help protect your heart by eating less saturated fat and replacing the sources of saturated and trans fats in your diet with healthy fats. But the first step toward making that change is to identify the sources of unhealthy fats. Some examples of foods that contain saturated fats include the following:
- Cream and cream sauces
- Coconut and coconut oil
- Full-fat dairy products (cheese, ice cream, sour cream, whole and 2 percent milk)
- High-fat, highly processed meat (bacon, ground beef, hotdogs, sausage, spareribs)
- Palm oil and palm kernel oil
- Poultry skin
Limiting these foods can reduce your risk of heart disease. A general goal is to aim for less than 10 percent of your daily calories to come from saturated fat, which amounts to roughly 13–22 grams of saturated fat per day depending on your calorie needs. Check with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to see if this goal is appropriate for you. When shopping for fat-containing foods, check the nutrition label; foods with 1 gram of saturated fat or less are generally considered low in saturated fat.
Trans fats, also called trans fatty acids, are processed fats that are created by turning liquid fats, such as vegetable oils, into solid fats. There are naturally occurring trans fats, but most trans fats you see in products on the market are added to foods during processing. The primary source of trans fats is partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats used to be found in many products, including margarines and butterlike spreads and baked goods such as biscuits, cakes, cookies, frozen pizza, and pie crusts. Trans fats are being removed from the food supply because, in 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that trans fats were not “generally recognized as safe.” Food manufacturers have until 2018 to fully remove trans fats from foods. Generally speaking, all people should avoid trans fats. So, check food labels and look for products with zero trans fats.
Monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids are healthier choices than saturated and trans fats (see the preceding section). Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered healthy because they have the ability to lower LDL or bad cholesterol. This is great news for people with diabetes (and the general population) because high LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular complications. Sources of unsaturated fats include vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
You’ll find monounsaturated fats in the following foods:
- Canola oil
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, and so on)
- Olives and olive oil
- Peanut butter and peanut oil
- Sesame seeds
Sources of polyunsaturated fats include the following:
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Safflower oil
- Salad dressings
- Soft margarines
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil and seeds
Omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart health by reducing the risk of clogged arteries. The primary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish and some plant foods — canola oil, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, soybean products, and walnuts. Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include the following:
- Albacore tuna
- Rainbow trout
So, enjoy a few servings of (nonfried) fish per week to take advantage of the benefits of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids!