The Best and Worst Types of Fat to Eat

Fat can be good for you or bad for you, depending on where it comes from in your diet, how much of it you eat, and how much of it gets stored in your body.

Dietary fat has long been implicated in weight gain, heart disease, and other health issues. For people with diabetes, dietary fat can also affect glucose levels and insulin requirements because it slows down digestion and makes it harder for insulin to do its job. Paying attention to fat in your diet can make a real difference in how effectively you manage diabetes. 

The Fat in Your Food

Fat comes in many different forms, and while there is no doubt that some fat in the diet is good for you—even essential—there is much debate among health experts about which types of fat, in what amounts, are helpful or harmful to your health. Because of these debates, and because nutritional science is always evolving, expert advice changes over time.

The 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed long-standing limits on total dietary fat, and emphasized that the type of fat you eat matters more than the amount. According to the guidelines, saturated fat—the type found in meats, butter, dairy products, palm oil and some other tropical oils—should be limited, but the recommended limit has been raised from 7 to 10 percent of total calories. That means, in a 2,000-calorie diet, your saturated fat limit is 200 calories or 22 grams daily.

Here’s a breakdown of saturated fat in commonly eaten foods:

  • 3 oz cooked ground beef: 70 percent lean has 16 g saturated fat; 97 percent lean, around 4 g saturated fat
  • 1 cup whole milk, 5 g saturated fat; 2% milk, 3 g; 1% milk less than 2 g
  • 1 Tbsp. butter, 7 g saturated fat; 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 g
  •  2 oz. whole milk mozarella, 7 g; part-skim mozzarella, 5 g

While you have some leeway when it comes to saturated fats, specific food choices and portion sizes make a difference when you’re trying to control the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

Ice cream is a source of saturated fat

The guidelines also emphasize the dangers of trans fats and emphasize avoiding them altogether since research shows they raise LDL ("bad") cholesterol and lower HDL ("good") cholesterol, which incresases your risk of heart disease. Trans fats form when liquid oils are converted to hard fats. These are the types of fats used to produce some types of margarines and other bread spreads, commercially prepared baked goods and snack foods. The Nutrition Facts label on food packaging tells you if a product contains trans fats.

The link between total fat, saturated fats and the development of heart disease and other chronic health conditions is not fully understood, and continues to be debated by experts. But there is encouraging research that shows a diet rich in foods that are naturally higher in unsaturated fats, such as nuts, avocado, olive and other vegetable oils, and oily fish like salmon, herring and mackerel, is healthier than a diet rich in other types of fats. 

The Fat on Your Body

While you are considering the mix of fats in your diet, it is also important to pay attention to the total amount of fat—all types of fat—in a diabetic meal plan. One of the most important reasons is that any type of fat from your diet is a concentrated source of calories, and that means if you eat too much, and don’t use up those calories for immediate energy, you will gain weight over time. It’s easy to forget about the “hidden” fats you can’t see in fried foods, baked goods and other processed foods. If you eat in excess, it is also very easy for your body to store all those dietary fats as body fat.

Fat from your diet is not the only source of body fat. Your body converts excess calories from any type of food into body fat, which is why you can also gain weight from eating too many carbs. (The same is true of protein, however, it is difficult to take in too many calories from protein, so fat and carbs are the dietary factors normally associated with weight gain.) Overeating any type of fat can lead to becoming overweight and obese over time.

Every Body Needs Some Fat

While being overweight and obesity are linked to many health problems, some stored body fat is good for you, and necessary, for several reasons. Your body fat becomes a source of energy whenever you’re not eating or not providing enough carbohydrates for the amount of energy you need. That includes the energy you need to keep your body functioning while you sleep, as well as the energy you need for routine activities and light to moderate exercise. When you cut back on the amount of food you normally eat, or fast for any period of time, and your body is not getting its usual amount of energy from carbohydrates, that energy comes from the breakdown of stored fat.

Fat also insulates your body from the cold, helps you maintain a normal temperature, protects your internal organs, and stores important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K until they are needed. A certain amount of fat helps your body function properly. Too little stored fat potentially puts you at just as much risk of developing health problems as too much fat.

Updated on: March 3, 2016
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