The “Right” Fat for Diabetes
More than 2/3 of the American population is overweight or obese.1 This astronomically high number continues to climb even higher as 1.6 million new cases of diabetes are diagnosed each year, resulting in an estimated 23.6 million people (7.8% of the American population) with diabetes.2
Is there a connection? Absolutely. Excess weight is a primary contributor to type 2 diabetes. Why?
The Fat and Diabetes Connection
Fat cells keep insulin from doing its job effectively. The more fat cells in the body, the less sensitive the body becomes to insulin. After years of building more and more fat cells, the body eventually becomes so resistant to insulin, that a person may develop type 2 diabetes.
But just as weight can increase risk and worsen cases of diabetes, weight loss has an equally powerful effect on lowering the risk of the disease. According to the Diabetes Prevention Program, "weight loss was the main predictor of reduced risk for developing diabetes."3
Lifestyle modifications, including a diet low in saturated and trans fat, is a healthy way to lose weight. Losing even 5 pounds can reduce your risk of diabetes.
Losing weight does not mean that you must stop eating fat altogether. In fact, the body needs fat for proper functioning and absorption of nutrients from the diet.
Not All Fat is Created Equal
Saturated fat is the unhealthy kind of fat that hardens in your arteries, increases bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, and leads to heart disease. Saturated fats are found in animal products like full-fat dairy, and fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb. The American Diabetes Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of your total caloric intake.4
Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats and should be avoided as much as possible. Not only do trans fats raise your bad cholesterol, but they also lower your good (HDL) cholesterol. According to a Nurse's Study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, trans fat most likely increases diabetes risk because of its negative effect on the regulation of insulin secretion.5
Trans fats are naturally occurring in small amounts in animal products, but they are artificially produced as well and appear as partially hydrogenated oils in food. This unhealthy oil is used primarily in baked goods to increase the shelf life of food, but it can be found in other unsuspecting items such as coffee creamer, popcorn, and ice cream. The Nurse’s Study suggests that type 2 diabetes can be reduced by 40% or more by swapping partially hydrogenated oil for non-hydrogenated oil.5
The best type of fat to combat diabetes is polyunsaturated fat, especially when eaten instead of saturated fat or trans fats. Polyunsaturated fats are thought to help with diabetes by altering the composition of cell membranes to increase insulin sensitivity.5
Most food labels do not list polyunsaturated fat separately, but eating foods like walnuts, sunflower seeds, and salad dressings or other food made with soybean, safflower, or sunflower oil will guarantee that you're getting a healthy amount.
A word of caution: Even if you switch to eating healthier fats, all fat is very calorie dense. One gram of fat, no matter if it is good or bad fat, provides 9 calories. That means one small tablespoon of oil contains about 120 calories. You do not need very much fat to get the healthy benefits they can offer, and too much will cause weight gain.
Make sure to measure your fats carefully and always check ingredient labels to make sure you consume the healthiest kinds of fat. Watching your fat intake may help you lose weight—which can make it easier for you to manage your type 2 diabetes.