How Much Fat Can People with Diabetes Have?

For people with diabetes, monitoring carbohydrates often takes center stage when managing their diets. But that doesn’t mean that other macronutrients should be ignored — especially when it comes to how much and what kind of fat someone with diabetes eats.

Diets containing a lot of saturated fat are associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, which are common comorbidities for diabetes. Understanding the different kinds of fats in foods and their effects on blood sugars is an important part of diabetes management.

Let’s take a closer look at dietary fats and their role in managing diabetes.

Fat doesn’t break down into glucose when it’s digested. That means it doesn’t directly cause blood glucose levels to rise.

In fact, eating a balanced meal or snack that includes some fat can lead to more stable glucose levels. Fat, along with protein and fiber, slows digestion which also slows down the absorption of carbohydrates and smooths out the glucose spikes they can cause.

But again, it’s important to pay attention to the amount and type of fat to keep the meal or snack heart-healthy.

Current dietary guidelines in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have moved away from recommending strict limits and amounts on the macronutrients and food groups people should eat. New guidelines embrace a more inclusive approach that recognizes and supports the need for personalized and culturally inclusive recommendations.

While the new guidelines call for “meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and staying within calorie limits,” calorie and nutritional limits are defined by a combination of age, sex, daily activity level (sedentary, moderately active, and active), and whether the person is pregnant or lactating.

For example:

  • for males who are 40 years or older, the daily calorie limit is about 2,200 calories depending on level of activity
  • for females 40 years or older, the daily calorie limit could be roughly 1,800 calories per day
  • for people who are pregnant, the daily limit could be as much as 452 additional calories than what’s listed above, depending on the trimester

Even though too much fat can lead to health issues, it cannot be eliminated from our diets completely. Fat makes it possible for the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. They also support cell function, give the body energy, and provide the body with fatty acids that it cannot make itself.

That being said, it’s important to limit the amount and kinds of fat eaten to support good health.

Nutrition Facts labels are found on packaged foods and beverages and restaurant menus. These are helpful tools for understanding the kind and amount of fat we eat. These labels provide information about the calories, fat, carbohydrates, and key nutrients in each standard serving.

On the label, the total number of grams of fat in a single serving of the food or beverage is listed.

Underneath that, the amount of saturated fat and trans fat are listed separately as grams. This detail tells us not only how much fat is present, but also how much of that fat comes from less healthy sources.

Fats are categorized into four groups:

  • polyunsaturated
  • monounsaturated
  • saturated
  • trans

You may have heard of “good” fats and “bad” fats.

Unsaturated fats are often labeled as “good” fats. Saturated and trans fats are often labeled as “bad” fats. To eat a balanced diet, it’s best to lean into eating and cooking with unsaturated fats more often than other fats.

Unsaturated fats (poly- and mono-)

These fats offer some heart protection by maintaining blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant and fish oil and some nuts, including:

  • olive oil
  • corn oil
  • canola oil
  • sunflower oil
  • oily fish including salmon, sardines, and trout
  • avocados
  • almonds, peanuts, and Brazil nuts
  • pumpkin, flax, and sesame seeds

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are considered less healthy. Too much saturated fat can raise LDL and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Saturated fats are found in animal foods and some plant-based foods, including:

  • coconut
  • coconut oil
  • palm oil
  • palm kernel oil
  • sausage, bacon, ground beef
  • beef and pork
  • milk, butter, dairy products (full fat and reduced fat)

In the United States, the biggest dietary source of saturated fat comes from sandwiches, including burgers, tacos, and burritos — generally foods and dishes containing high fat meats and full fat dairy. Saturated fats are also found in desserts and sweet snacks.

There is debate about whether saturated fat should be avoided. The ADA recommends limiting this type of fat, while the accredited Joslin Diabetes Center does not. All sources do agree that processed meats and highly processed foods and trans fats should be limited.

Trans fats

These fats can negatively affect heart health and circulation. They raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol and contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance.

Trans fats are most commonly manufactured by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. This changes the liquid oil into solid fat at room temperature. Vegetable shortening and margarine used to be commonly made using trans fats.

Trans fats can also be naturally present in some animal products from ruminant animals. These include dairy milk, butter, cheese, and some meats.

In response to the negative effects trans fats have on heart health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action to ban trans fats known as partially hydrogenated oils.

Naturally occurring trans fats do not promote inflammation like manufactured trans fats, which the FDA has banned since 2020.

Fat is part of a healthy, balanced daily diet for people with diabetes. However, saturated fats can increase the risk of heart disease or stroke. So, it’s best to keep saturated fat intake to fewer than 10% of total daily calories.