Are fats good or bad for your body? What exactly are fatty acids? Do I really need fat in my diet? Are their limits? Is there anything special I need to know about fats because I have diabetes? Some people are confused about the details about fat. Your body needs dietary fat to function. In fact, some fats are vital!

healthy dietary fats and diabetesWhat are the different kinds of dietary fats?

Fats can be saturated, mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated. There is also a fat called a trans-fat.   
Trans-fats occur in nature in small amounts in animal products but they also are manufactured by food companies to increase time foods made with fat are stable on the grocer’s shelf.  To make trans-fats, polyunsaturated fats are altered by adding hydrogen atoms (this is called hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation) and it changes the configuration of the fat molecule. (1,2,3) 

I heard I should stay away from trans-fats. Is this true and why? What foods are trans-fats found in? How do I know how much trans-fat fatty-acids I am eating? 

The dietary guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend that people keep the consumption of trans-fatty acids as low as possible. (3)  The American Diabetes Association agrees with this recommendation. (4) The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans-fats to no more than 1 percent of your daily calories for healthy Americans over the age of 2 years. (5) The reason for this is that trans-fats have been shown to both increase bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) and decrease good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein or HDL) in the body.  Increased LDL levels are a risk factor for heart disease and potential heart attacks. Low values of HDL’s also will increase this risk. 

Foods in which trans-fats are commonly found, include:

Baked products in food stores that are pre-packaged (cookies, cakes, cupcakes, muffins, etc), margarines and shortening made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.  Look on the food labels to see if there are trans-fats in the product. Foods you may not think of include popcorn, frozen products with a crust, frosting and coffee creamers. Sometimes fast food manufacturers also cook with oils that include trans-fats. Call your favorite restaurants to see if they have a policy in place about trans-fats. (3,6)

As mentioned, trans-fat content is listed on nutrition food labels. Beware that in in some foods labeled with 0 grams of trans-fat, a small amount may still be in the product.  Know that you will get a small amount of trans-fats if hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats are l among the ingredients on the label.  

Labeling laws for trans-fats:

“FDA's regulation for nutrition labeling of Trans fats states, if the total fat in a food is less than 0.5 grams (or ½ gram) per serving, and no claims are made about fat, fatty acids, or cholesterol content, Trans-fat does not have to be listed on the label. However, if it is not listed, a footnote must be added stating that the food is "not a significant source of trans- fat." (7) 

About saturated fats

Just like trans-fats, saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. (8)  There are specific recommendations for the amount of fat consumed for all people per day by prominent health organizations. The Mayo clinic and the American Heart Association recommend no more than 7% of your calories come from fats. (5,8)
Foods that contain saturated fats include fat from mammals and birds. Products that include fat from the milk products of mammals (milk, cheese, ice cream and butter) are also high in saturated fat.  An additional source of saturated fats comes from foods made with e coconut and palm oil. Do not overlook bread products that are cooked with saturated fat products. (5) 

Although there are specific recommendations for the amount of saturated fat you should eat, there is new research that has been published showing a decreased risk of eating high fat dairy products and developing type 2 diabetes. This challenges the current recommended guidelines. Scientists recommend more research to look at the relationship of specific saturated fats and diabetes risk.  The same research showed a positive relationship between eating all meat and meat products (not just fatty meat) and diabetes risk. It was concluded that dairy products can be part of a healthy diet but be careful not to consume more calories than needed to keep a healthy weight. Overweight and obese people are at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. The conclusions recommend a diet low in saturated fat to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes but again a need for more research. (9,10) 

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats include Monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFA). The American Heart Association suggests eating foods high in MUFA and PUFA. (11) 

Monounsaturated fats- These fats can help to reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood as part of a balanced diet. Lowering LDL cholesterol level helps many people decrease their risk of heart disease and stroke. Monounsaturated fats are also natural sources of Vitamin E. (11) 

What foods contain Monounsaturated Fats?

All fats from foods contain a combination of different fats. Here is a list of those that are high in MUFA

Fat Type Total Fat Saturated Fat Monounsaturated Fat Polyunsaturated Fat
Olive Oil (1 tsp) 4.5 grams 0.62 grams 3.25 grams 0.47 grams
Canola Oil (1 tsp) 4.5 grams 0.33 grams 2.85 grams 1.27 grams
Safflower Oil (1 tsp) 4.5 grams 0.28 grams 3.35 grams 0.64 grams
Sesame Oil (1 tsp) 4.5 grams 0.64 grams 1.78 grams 1.87 grams
Avocado (1 oz) 3.1 grams 0.45 grams 2.06 grams 0.38 grams

Polyunsaturated Fats:

There are two types of polyunsaturated fats, Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and Omega-3 Polyunsaturated fats. These fats are vital for humans to consume. They provide essential fatty acids which are necessary for life but our bodies cannot make. (12)

Research scientists associate eating healthy omega-3 fatty acids with a decreased  risk of type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, high blood pressure and autoimmune disease.(13) High triglyceride levels and low HDL levels are common in many people with type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids help lower the bad cholesterol and increase the good. A certain type of omega-6 fatty acid (gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is thought to help some people who have their diabetes under control and have diabetic neuropathy. Supplements are not advised unless recommended by a physician. They can interact with medications and increase seizures in certain people. (14)

It is thought by some experts that the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the diet is 1:1 or 2:1.  Most Americans need to increase the amount of omega-3 fats in the diet to get to this level. (15)  

Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

Sources of omega-6 fatty acids include:

Note: Most people get enough omega-6 fats in their diet. In fact many people get 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega -3 fatty acids. (16)

  • Safflower oil
  • Wheat germ oil
  • Corn oil 
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Sunflower oil

What are some of the things people with diabetes need to know about fats?

  • Using foods that have healthy fats is recommended for most people with diabetes. Include foods with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • We all need fats in our diet. All fat contains 9 calories per gram. If you use exchange lists for your meal plan, one fat exchange is 5 grams of fat or 45 calories.
  • The liberal use of fat will increase the calories in your diet and may promote weight gain.
  • Prominent organizations have different recommendations for consuming fat.
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages 20-35% of calories come from fat for healthy adults. Strive for the Increased consumption of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and limit the intake of saturated and trans-fats.(17) 
  • The American Diabetes Association’s stand is that the percentage of fat, protein and carbohydrate in the diet needs to be individualized. There is not an ideal percentage of these nutrients for everyone with diabetes. (18) Fat quality is more important than quantity and in people with type 2 diabetes, eating a diet rich in MUFA may benefit glycemic control and lower the risk of heart disease.  It is recommended that people with diabetes eat fatty fish (as long as there are no contraindications) at least 2 times per week. (19) 
  • A recent study evaluating low carbohydrate vs high carbohydrate diets showed that a low carbohydrate diet with a low amount of saturated fat may among preferred choices for the management of type 2 diabetes. (20) 
  • Be aware of the kinds of fat you are eating and switch to healthy fats. Use canola, olive oil and other oils high in mono-unsaturated fat instead of butter or hydrogenated margarine. Read labels and pick healthy fats to feed your family.  As long as there are no issues with nuts or fish, snack on nuts but watch the amount as calories can add up. Plan to eat fatty fish at least twice a week.
  • Ask your favorite restaurants what oils they use in cooking. Encourage them to use healthy fats.

Remember, you need fat…one final fun fact:

Do you know how much of your brain is made from fat and how your brain uses omega-3 fatty acids?


Approximately 60 percent. Fats, specifically essential fatty acids are vital to the ability of the brain to function. Omega -3 fatty acids are needed from the diet for the brain to develop both in utero and after birth. Mental development and vision is affected by certain types of fat. With over half our brains made out of fat, you would be correct if you thought that fat is needed for the structure of the brain and also the function. Essential fatty acids are involved in neurotransmission, neuro-protection, and is involved our immune systems.  (21,22)