No doubt about it, carbohydrate—commonly known as carbs—gets all the attention in diabetes management. However, another important nutrient to consider as part of a balanced diet is fat. Even though it sounds counter intuitive to what you might expect, eating the right amount of the right type of fat plays an important role in our bodies.
What is fat?
Fat cushions organs, stores energy, insulates the body against elements, supports cell growth and more. Since fats are higher in calories per gram, when it comes to fat, the key is being mindful of portions. Eating the right types of fat is also important for reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and other health problems.
There are four main types of fat: saturated, trans, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends including more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than saturated or trans fats in your diet. Some types of fat are listed in the Nutrition Facts label on food products. Learn how to decode the label.
What is cholesterol and what you should know about it
When we talk about fat, it’s important to understand what we mean when we mention cholesterol. There are two types: the type found in our blood, known as blood cholesterol, and the cholesterol we eat, known as dietary cholesterol.
Blood cholesterol plays an important role in the body and is the starting point in making hormones, cell structures, vitamin D and more. Your body makes more than enough cholesterol for these uses, but it can also absorb small amounts from the foods you eat.
When the total cholesterol in your blood is too high, you are at greater risk of heart disease. However, contrary to popular belief, dietary cholesterol has less of an impact on this number than previously believed. For most people, saturated fat and trans fat play a much more significant role in increasing blood cholesterol, resulting in an increased risk of heart disease. Since foods that are typically high in dietary cholesterol are also high in saturated fat, its easiest to focus on limiting saturated fat.
To figure out what targets are right for you, talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD/RDN) or your health care provider.
The Four Types of Fat
Monounsaturated fats are considered part of a healthy, balanced diet because of the protective effect they have on our hearts. These fats have been shown to lower our low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, an important marker for heart health. Monounsaturated fats are not required to be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, but for foods where they are a good source, they often are.
Sources of monounsaturated fat include:
- Canola oil
- Nuts like almonds, cashews, pecans and peanuts
- Olive oil and olives (look for low/reduced sodium)
- Peanut butter and peanut oil
- Safflower Oil
To include more monounsaturated fats in your diet, try to substitute olive or canola oil instead of butter, margarine or shortening when cooking. Sprinkling a few nuts on a salad, yogurt or cereal is an easy way to eat more monounsaturated fats. But be sure to be mindful of the portions you are eating—like all fats, these products are high in calories.
Polyunsaturated fats are another important fat to include as part of a healthy balanced diet. Much like monounsaturated fat, this fat lowers LDL cholesterol and your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are two types of polyunsaturated fat that are also linked with improved heart health. Considered essential fatty acids because our body is unable to produce them, these fats need to be included as part of a healthy diet.
Sources of Omega 3s include:
- Oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, tuna)
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Canola Oil
- Chia seeds
Sources of Omega 6s include:
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Canola oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Peanut butter
This type of fat can increase your cholesterol, and as a result, your risk of heart disease. This is one of the fats that should be limited in our diet. Typically, this fat is found in animal products and tropical oils that are solid at room temperature.
Animal products containing saturated fat include:
- Fatback and salt pork
- High-fat meats like regular ground beef, bologna, hot dogs, sausage, bacon and spareribs
- High-fat dairy products such as full-fat cheese, cream, ice cream, whole milk, 2% milk and sour cream.
- Cream sauces
- Gravy made with meat drippings
- Poultry skin (example: chicken, turkey etc.)
Oils containing saturated fat include:
- Palm oil and palm kernel oil
- Coconut and coconut oil
Saturated fat grams are listed on the Nutrition Facts label under “total fat”. The goal is to get less than 10% of one’s calories from saturated fat. For example, someone eating a 2,000 calorie diet should aim for 20 grams or less of saturated fat. To figure out the right target for you, talk to your dietitian.
Trans fats are produced when liquid oil is made into a solid fat—a process called hydrogenation. Like saturated fat, trans fat can be damaging to blood cholesterol levels. It is more harmful than saturated fat, and for a heart-healthy diet, you want to eat as little trans fat as possible by avoiding foods that contain it.
Trans fats are listed on the Nutrition Facts label, making it easier to identify these foods. However, keep in mind that if there isn’t at least 0.5 grams or more of trans fat in a food, the label can claim 0 grams. To avoid as much trans fat as possible, you should read the ingredients list on food labels. Look for words like hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil. Avoid foods that where a liquid oil is listed first on the ingredients list.
Sources of trans fat include:
- Processed foods like snacks (crackers and chips) and baked goods (muffins, cookies and cakes) with hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil
- Some fast food items, such as french fries
For help figuring out what targets are right for you when it comes to fats, talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RD/RDN) or your health care provider.