What Exactly are Saturated Fats and Do They Play a Role in Diabetes?

There are two main categories when it comes to fat in our diet: saturated and unsaturated fats. Fat is made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules.

The chemical structure distinguishes saturated fat from unsaturated fat. Saturated fat contains no double bonds between carbon molecules as they are “saturated” with hydrogen molecules. Saturated fat is a naturally occurring fat that is typically solid at room temperature.

Saturated fat has achieved much attention due to its connection with heart disease. Saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol levels and LDL cholesterol (commonly referred to as the “bad cholesterol”) when consumed excessively. Elevated LDL cholesterol raises the risk of heart disease, which is twice as common among those with diabetes.

While saturated fat is mostly from animal sources, it is also found in plants. Animal sources of saturated fat include full fat dairy (such a whole milk, butter, ice cream and cheese), lard, beef, pork and poultry with skin. Plant sources of saturated fat include palm and coconut oils.

Different organizations vary slightly in their recommendations for daily saturated fat intake. The American Heart Association recommends saturated fat intake not exceeding 5-6% of your total calories per day, while the American Diabetes Association recommends less than 10% of your total calories per day. According to The National Institute of Health, if you have an elevated blood cholesterol or elevated LDL cholesterol, saturated fat intake should not exceed 7% of your total calories per day.

Saturated fat can be found on a nutrition label under Total Fat and is listed in grams. Here are a few examples of how many grams of saturated fat a person can eat based on consuming 2,000 calories per day.

5% saturated fat: 11 grams

6% saturated fat: 13 grams

7% saturated fat: 15 grams

10% saturated fat: 22 grams

A diet high in Total Fat (greater than 35% of total calories), over time, has been connected with the development of insulin resistance, which plays a major role in the pathogenesis of type 2 diabetes. Saturated fat, in particular, has been pointed at having a negative affect on insulin sensitivity.

Quality of fat intake may be more important than the amount of fat. Monounsaturated fats, when eaten in place of saturated fats, may have beneficial effects on blood sugar control and heart disease risk factors.

Recent research in European countries reported some forms of saturated fat might be protective against the development of type 2 diabetes. The length of the saturated fatty acid chain found in dairy foods, such as yogurt and cheese, may act differently in the body than the saturated fatty acid chain found in red meats. At this time, more research and studies are necessary before new recommendations can be made.

Saturated fat intake can be reduced by choosing low fat or fat free dairy foods, fats that are liquid at room temperature, trimming visible fat from meats, removing skin from poultry, and choosing lean cuts of meat (cuts of meat with the word round or loin in the name are typically leaner). Replace foods high in saturated fats with foods rich in monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and avocados.

Remember, no matter what type of fat you are consuming, fat is a concentrated source of calories, providing 9 calories per gram of fat (carbohydrate and protein each have 4 calories per gram). While fat does not contain carbohydrates, portion control is still important so that intake of excess calories is avoided!

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