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Fats and diabetes

Fats and diabetes

All of us need to follow a healthy, balanced diet which is low in fat.

Fat is very high in calories with each gram of fat providing more than twice as many calories compared to protein and carbohydrate.

Eating too much fat can lead to you taking in more calories than your body needs which overtime causes weight gain which can affect your diabetes control and risk of heart disease.

Information on recommendations on the types of fat can get confusing. We reviewed the evidence, and still recommend reducing the amount of saturated fat eaten. 

In this section

Should I avoid fat completely?

Fat plays a very important role in the body, so you need to include a small amount of it in your diet. Fat in our body fulfils a wide range of functions, which include:

  • supplying energy for cells
  • providing essential fatty acids that your body can't make
  • transporting fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K)
  • providing a protective layer around vital organs
  • being necessary in the production of hormones.

However, fats are high in calories, so it’s important to be aware of how much you have – especially if you’re trying to manage your weight. Next time you’re cooking or shopping, have a look at the nutritional label to see what types of fats are in the product you’re buying.

Types of fat

The main types of fat found in our food are saturated and unsaturated, and most foods will have a combination of these. All of us need to cut down on saturated fat and use unsaturated fats and oils, such as rapeseed or olive oil, as these types are better for your heart.

Saturated fats

Saturated fat is present in higher amounts in animal products, such as:

  • Butter, ghee and lard
  • cream
  • cheese
  • meat
  • meat products, including sausages and bacon
  • processed foods like pastries, cakes and biscuits.
  • palm oil
  • coconut oil and cream

Some saturated fats increase the amount of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein or LDL) in the body. Too much LDL cholesterol can lead to a build-up of fatty material in the artery walls, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Unsaturated fats

There are two types of unsaturated fats:

  • monounsaturated
  • polyunsaturated.

They can help to maintain the ‘good cholesterol’ (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) in the body. HDL carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver, where it’s either broken down or passed out of the body as a waste product. Monounsaturated fats are present in a higher amount in olive oil, rapeseed oil and avocado. 

Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fats are further divided into Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. They play an important role in cardiovascular health, brain function and reducing inflammation. Some types of omega-3 and omega-6 fats cannot be made from your body, so a small amount it needed from your diet.

Most dietary polyunsaturated fat is in the form of Omega 6, found in sunflower, rapeseed, safflower, corn, groundnut and soya oils. Oily fish, such as mackerel, sardines, trout and pilchards, is a good source of omega 3 oils. 

Plant sources of omega-3 include walnuts, flaxseeds, linseeds, or green leafy vegetables, however these are not thought to have the same benefit on heart health as those found in fish. You can find more information on our page on Veganism and Diabetes.

Trans fatty acids or trans fats

Trans fatty acids have a similar effect to saturated fats, where they increase the amount of LDL in the body, but they also lower the amount of HDLs.

Trans fats are found naturally in small amounts in milk, cheese, beef and lamb. Trans fats are also produced when ordinary oils are heated to fry foods at a very high temperature, which is why takeaway foods tend to be high in trans fats.

The main issue arises because they are also created by the food manufacturing industry using a chemical process known as hydrogenation that hardens vegetable oil to solid or semi-solid fats. These artificially produced trans fats are found in significant quantities in margarine and manufactured foods that contain partially hydrogenated fat.

Many manufacturers have now reduced the amount of trans fats in their products due to a movement to reduce them in manufactured foods over the years.

All types of fat are high in energy, contain the same amount of calories, and if it is not used by the body, it is converted into body fat. So, whichever fat you choose to use, make sure that you are mindful about portion size.

Cholesterol in food – good or bad?

Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance and is vital for the normal function of the body. It’s mainly made in the liver, but it can also be found in some foods. Cholesterol found naturally in some foods has very little influence on blood cholesterol levels. Foods that contain high amounts of dietary cholesterol, such as liver, egg yolk and shellfish, can be included in the diet, although the key is to cook them without fat or use small amounts of unsaturated fat.

Ways to reduce intake of unhealthy fats

Follow these tips to help you reduce your saturated fat intake and replace with small amounts of unsaturated fats. 

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim any visible fat and remove the skin.
  • Reduce your intake of processed meats like burgers and sausages. Choose lean meats like skinless chicken, turkey and fish. Or plant-based protein like lentils, beans or Quorn. 
  • Cook with small amounts of unsaturated fats and oils like rapeseed, sunflower or olive oil instead of butter, ghee, lard or coconut oil.
  • Choose healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, poaching and steaming or stir-fry with a small amount of oil.
  • Limit takeaways. Some may be very high in saturated – and often trans – fats. 
  • Spray oils are brilliant for controlling the amount of oil you use - some are as low as 1Kcal per spray.
  • Always read the food label – this can tell you how much fat and saturated fat is in the product. Opt for foods that have more green or amber traffic lights to help make healthier choices.
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