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What are the Good Fats for Diabetes and Heart Disease?

Thank goodness the 80s notion that all dietary fat is bad – and, by extension, that all fat-free cookies are good – has gone the way of the pager! Today we know that that the type of fat matters. But there’s still confusion about what are healthy fats. So today, I’m sharing facts about fats, especially for people concerned about diabetes or the heart.

good fats for diabetes on counter

It’s the food that matters. I say the same kind of thing when I talk about carbohydrates. We simply cannot put all carb-containing foods in the same category. And likewise, we can’t put all fat-rich foods in a single fat category. Lard and olive oil don’t belong in the same fat category any more than candy and cantaloupe belong in the same carb category.

In general, Americans eat an appropriate amount of fat, but we still eat too much saturated fat. Both the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association recommend cutting back on saturated fat intake for the sake of our hearts. And both tell us to replace some of that saturated fat with unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are healthy fats for diabetes and for the heart.

This is a good place to remind you that type 2 diabetes is not just a blood sugar problem. It’s also a heart problem, and the leading cause of death and serious illness among people with diabetes is heart disease. So when I counsel people about diabetes, I also guide them to make heart-healthy choices. And part of that, of course, is to choose healthy fats.

What are saturated fats?

Saturated fats are the ones to limit. Our bodies make all that we need. But when we consume too much, we get a boost in our LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and a reduction in insulin sensitivity – a problem for our hearts and blood sugar levels.

Common sources of saturated fat

Saturated fat is common in animal fats, dairy fat and solid and semi-solid fats like coconut oil and other tropical oils. Most of the clients I work with aim to limit their saturated fat intake to no more than 20 grams daily. Those with high cholesterol often need to limit it even much more.

Food and Serving SizeSaturated Fat (g)
American cheese, 1 ounce5
Bacon, cooked, 2 slices3
Chicken nuggets, 6 pieces3
Beef brisket, cooked, 4 ounces8
Kielbasa, pan-fried, 6 ounces 17
Cheesecake, 1 slice, 4 ounces12

It’s impossible to eat a zero-saturated fat diet. That’s because fats are really combinations of fatty acids, so even nuts, salmon and olive oil, which are good sources of healthy fats for diabetes and the heart, contain some saturated fatty acids.

Love nuts? Check out what is the best nut for health.

The benefit you reap from cutting back on saturated fats depends on what you replace them with. If you give up bacon and fried cheese, but load up on toaster pastries, gummy candies and fat-free pretzels, you won’t be doing your health much good. This is what I mean when I say that the type of food matters. It’s best to replace the unhealthy fats with healthy fats or wholesome plant foods like lentils, beans, vegetables and whole grains.

What are healthy or good fats for the heart and diabetes?

In short, wholesome foods containing unsaturated fats are good choices. There are several types of unsaturated fats. Even though I list them below, you don’t need to spend too much energy figuring out what is what. Just jump down to the bottom to read the tips: How to Get Healthy Fats for Diabetes and the Heart. The bottom line is this: when you replace some of your saturated fats with unsaturated fats, you can expect better cholesterol levels, greater insulin sensitivity and perhaps even less inflammation.

healthy fats for the heart on a counter

Types of unsaturated fats

Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega-3, omega-6 and even more. These are words that you may see on food labels. They all refer to unsaturated and healthy fats.

Whenever you see the word omega in reference to fats, it’s an unsaturated fatty acid.

There are two classes of unsaturated fatty acids: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

  • Monounsaturated. For the geeky types, this simply refers to a fatty acid with a single unsaturated spot (a single double bond). The most common monounsaturated fat in the diet is oleic acid, which is an omega-9 fatty acid. And you consume it in many foods, especially olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. Your body makes oleic acid, but it appears important in the diet anyway. Oleic acid became an interest to scientists because it’s a common fatty acid in a Mediterranean diet. Here’s how to lower blood sugar naturally with a Mediterranean diet.
salmon, scallops and lemon on a platter

There are lots of healthy fats in salmon. Try my easy lemon basil sauce.

  • Polyunsaturated. In chemistry terms, a polyunsaturated fat is a fatty acid with two or more unsaturated locations or two or more double bonds. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be further broken down into two subclasses: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids. Your body can’t make omega-3 fatty acids, so they are considered essential. These unsaturated fats are in the news a lot because of their role in heart disease prevention. ALA is the plant form of omega-3 fatty acids, and you can find it in walnuts, ground flaxseed, tofu, soybeans, and canola, soybean and walnut oils. The marine forms of omega-3 fatty acids – EPA and DHA – are also critically important. You can get them in fish or in supplements derived from fish or algae. We need both the plant form and the marine form of omega-3 fatty acids for optimal health. EPA and DHA also promote brain and eye development in infants and children, appear to improve the cognitive function of the elderly, and reduce inflammation, including the type of inflammation associated with heart disease. EPA and DHA are in in bluefish, herring, lake trout, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and tuna. According to the AHA, omega-3 fatty acids are the most important fatty acids for heart health. These are the ones you most likely need to make an effort to consume since they are so important, but not so common in the diet.
    • Omega-6 fatty acids. This is another type of essential fatty acid. Omega-6 fatty acids are more abundant in food than omega-3 fatty acids. At one point, many health professionals (including me) believed that a high intake of omega-6 fatty acids increased inflammation in the body, thus raising the risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Many experts no longer believe this. Newer research finds that omega-6 fatty acids do not increase inflammation. In fact, the AHA says that omega-6 fatty acids are a good choice to replace saturated fats. Omega-6 fatty acids are common in corn, wheat, nuts, and corn and safflower oils.

 

Here’s How to Get Healthy Fats for Diabetes and the Heart

  • Seek out sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Sprinkle walnuts or ground flaxseed on salads, yogurt and oatmeal. Eat fatty fish a couple times each week. Cook with canola oil. Whisk a salad dressing with walnut oil. Snack on edamame beans and enjoy tofu for lunch or dinner now and then.
  • Cook more with liquid oils and less with butter, stick margarine, lard, shortening, bacon grease and coconut oil.
  • When baking, replace 4 tablespoons butter with 3 tablespoons of olive or canola oil.
  • Replace cheese on a sandwich with a slice of avocado.
  • Snack on a 1/4-cup serving of nuts instead of typical vending machine foods.
  • Trade in cheesy dressings and sauces for a vinaigrette or an avocado-based sauce.

What tips can you share to get more healthy fats for diabetes and the heart?

Jill Weisenberger

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.

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Like most of my patients and clients, I lead a busy life. You probably do too. Fortunately, you don’t need weeks, days or even hours to start living better and healthier. This blog offers timesaving strategies and bite-sized nutrition and health information. Come by often for tips and inspiration to healthy living – no matter how busy you are. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist offering credible, practical nutrition advice to keep busy people healthy. Yes indeed, we can be both busy and healthy.

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