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Fats and Diabetes 101

A primer on saturated fats, trans fats & cholesterol

The message on fats for people living with diabetes from the American Diabetes Association’s nutrition recommendations is clear: limiting saturated and trans fat consumption (as well as dietary cholesterol) is a top priority. The Association’s guidelines focus on these goals:

  • Saturated fat: Get seven percent or less of your calories from saturated fat. For example, a person who eats 1,500 calories a day should eat no more than about 12 grams of saturated fat (each gram of fat has 9 calories).
  • Trans fat: Eat as little man-made trans fat as possible.  These are the trans fats, which are created when oil is hydrogenated.
  • Cholesterol: Eat no more than 200 milligrams a day.

The recommendations for all Americans echo this advice. At the same time, as a registered dietitian, I can tell you that not all fats are “bad,” and the research on the topic has evolved; so it seems like a good time for a Fats 101 recap.

The body needs fat for a variety of reasons: to carry fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K; to create certain hormones; to keep skin healthy; to create essential fatty acids that can’t be produced in the body from other fats, like linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid; and to offer a source of energy should you run out of carbohydrate.

Fats in Your Foods

Fats come in two main categories – saturated and unsaturated. Like many of the terms used in speaking about fats, “saturated” and “unsaturated” describe molecular differences between the compounds. In this case, the main difference to the naked eye between the two would be that foods with a high percentage of saturated fat (like butter) are solid at room temperature, while fats with more unsaturated fat are usually liquid – such as vegetable oils like canola, corn, and soybean oil.

Fats are found in both plant and animal foods, which contain fat. Generally speaking, animal fats tend to have a higher proportion of saturated fat than unsaturated with seafood being the major exception (it contains little to no fat), while plant foods that contain fat typically contain more unsaturated fat. There are exceptions, of course. Coconut oil  contains mainly saturated fats.

On a related note, foods with an animal origin may contain cholesterol – which is not fat, but a wax-like substance found in all cells in the body. Foods high in cholesterol, such as shrimp, squid, and organ meats like liver, are not necessarily high in fat.

To further categorize unsaturated fats, foods containing unsaturated fats may contain either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, or so-called fatty acids or a combination. All fats and oils – from margarine to beef fat to canola oil – contain varying amounts of fatty acids. Olive oil contains about three-quarters monounsaturated fats. Foods rich in polyunsaturated fats include fish and seafood, leafy greens, and sunflower and safflower oils.

There is a third type of unsaturated fat called trans fat. It occurs naturally in animal products such as meat, milk, and dairy products, but the man-made form is at the heart of health concerns. Trans fats are created when a liquid oil is turned into a solid fat, like margarine. Since 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required trans fat information to be included on most nutrition labels.

Fats (Lipids) in Your Blood

The different fats and oils you eat have different effects on the fats in your blood stream (which are called lipids). The amount of fats in blood is determined by four measurements:  your total cholesterol, Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), High Density Lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), and triglycerides.

Research shows that consuming a lot of saturated fat can raise your total cholesterol and LDL levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease. And trans fat raises LDL cholesterol and reduces HDL – the opposite of the wanted effect.

The healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lower total cholesterol and LDL, which is good for the heart. Omega-3 fats, which are a form of polyunsaturated fat, seem to lower triglycerides, which is also a positive thing.

What Fats and Oils to Eat

As for the total amount of fat to eat, this is where research and recommendations have evolved. I know from experience that years ago, the big push was to eat less total fat. Today, research shows that it may be more important to focus on the type and quality of the fatty acids than the quantity of calories taken in from fat. My advice to clients is to eat fewer saturated and man-made trans fats, and more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. But don’t get carried away with healthier fats and oils. They are still concentrated sources of calories that can add up to pounds quickly.

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE*, is the author of several best-selling books published by the American Diabetes Association, including Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy and Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating. She’s a frequent contributor to Diabetic Living magazine. Warshaw is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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