Fats: Friend or Foe?
STUDENT CONTRIBUTOR: Dorothy Perelman | School of Nutrition, Ryerson University
December 27, 2020
Fat can be a confusing topic for many - especially those with diabetes, as fat can reduce insulin sensitivity and lead to the development of diabetes complications. There is a lot of misleading information floating around about fat. What is fat and which foods are sources of fat? Will eating fat make me fat? How much fat should I be consuming? Why is fat important? Is fat good or bad? Let's see if we can answer some of these questions...
On one hand, we often hear that fat is associated with cardiovascular disease, clogged arteries, or weight gain and that we must avoid it at all costs. On the other hand, we're told that fat needs to be incorporated into a healthy, balanced diet and is essential for weight loss and for maintaining stable blood sugar levels.
It's important to clarify that there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” food. There are foods which should be part of your regular diet, and others that should be limited. The same can be said about fats. Certain types of fats, like unsaturated fats are okay to enjoy in your diet. Whereas saturated fat consumption should be reduced and trans fats are best avoided altogether.
Fat is a macronutrient, meaning we need higher amounts of fat in our diet. The daily reference intake (DRI) for fat in adults is 20-35% of total calories consumed. Each gram of fat, no matter the type of fat, contains 9 calories.
How do we tell the difference between fats in food?
Let's start with saturated fats, which are predominantly found in animal products such as milk, butter, cream, cheese and fatty meats. High amounts of saturated fat can also be found in baked goods such as muffins or cakes, as well as fried foods like donuts or chips. Research has shown there is a link between a high consumption of saturated fats and high levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), which may also increase your risk of future heart disease. High intake of saturated fat can also reduce the ability of your liver receptors to function at their best, which can contribute to hyperlipidemia - a condition people with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing.
Having said that, you do not need to avoid saturated fat completely. Diabetes Canada recommends limiting saturated fat in your meals to less than 9% of daily calories. Doing so will help to prevent further diabetes complications like atherosclerosis (hardening of the blood vessels) or cardiovascular disease.
The second form of fat is referred to as unsaturated fatty acids. There are two forms of unsaturated fatty acids;
cis unsaturated fats
trans unsaturated fat
We don't often hear about cis unsaturated fats, but trans fats are commonly pointed out in many nutrition blogs, commercials and product packaging. In simple terms, trans fatty acids undergo a process known as hydrogenation. Hydrogenation strips the benefits away, but increases the food’s shelf life. Trans fats may increase your levels of LDL cholesterol - the "bad cholesterol", and lower your levels of HDL cholesterol - the "good cholesterol". Trans fats may also increase your risk of developing a stroke or heart disease
Where are trans fats found? Sadly, they're found in many of the goodies we love to eat, such as:
Fried foods; burgers, fries, chicken nuggets
Desserts like donuts and cupcakes
Pastries like croissants and danishes
Now that we have covered trans fats, let's talk about other forms of unsaturated fats.
There are 2 forms of unsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats include Omega-9 fatty acids, and are found in foods like avocados, nut butters, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds and olives, as well as plant based oils like canola and safflower oil. Studies show that monounsaturated fats are associated with a number of health benefits such as weight loss and a reduced risk of heart disease. Research supports that monounsaturated fats are associated with decreased blood pressure in those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
Polyunsaturated fats on the other hand include foods like walnuts and fish, as well as oils such as soybean, corn and sunflower oil. Polyunsaturated fats include essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are essential because they are not produced by the body and therefore we need to get them from the foods in our diet!
Image: © JulijaDmitrijeva/Getty Images
Omega-3 fats help to reduce inflammation in our body, and play an important role in the function of human cell membranes, improving heart health and aiding in weight loss. In fact, certain forms of omega-3 fats play a significant role in the formation and development of our brain, while other forms play a role in the prevention of atherosclerosis.
Omega-6 fats are just as important! Normal levels of omega-6 ca help to increase good cholesterol (HDL) and decrease bad cholesterol (LDL), but are typically found in high concentration - especially in Westernized diets. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is 4:1. Diets too high in omega-6 can increase risk of inflammation and chronic disease.
So... is Fat our Friend or Foe?
The answer is that fat is our FRIEND! We need fat to keep us full and to help with many of our internal bodily functions. Remember, balance, portion and frequency are the keys to overall health and well-being. The majority of your diet should consist of foods such as clean proteins, vegetables, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats such as mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids!
If you'd like more support in planning healthy, balanced meals to support a lifestyle that helps you achieve your long term health goals, book a session with our Registered Dietitian.