Every now and then, it’s a good idea to dust off the cobwebs and refresh your memory about certain things. This week, I thought it might be a good idea to remind you of a few facts about one of the key nutrients in our diets: fat! I chose fat because the winter holidays are upon us, and this is traditionally a time for overindulgence in fatty treats.
Close your eyes and picture one of your favorite holiday
dishes—chances are you’re not thinking about sugar-free Jell-o topped with fat-free Cool Whip. No, perhaps you’re thinking about eggnog, potato pancakes, plum pudding, roast goose, pumpkin pie…and come New Year’s Day, you might also be thinking about how your pants feel just a little too tight and how your blood glucose levels were a little difficult to control over the past few weeks.
Fat is both a boon and a curse, particularly when it comes to diabetes. We need fat to stay healthy, and some fats are good for us. Also, fat makes food taste good. But there’s a darker side to fat, too. This week we’ll look at fat in a general sense, and in my next entry we’ll focus on how fat impacts diabetes control.
Why do we need fat? Fat is a source of stored energy for the body, for one thing. Usually, we draw on glycogen (a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles) for most of our energy needs. But sometimes we burn up that glycogen, either through exercise or by eating less carbohydrate than usual. Our bodies may then shift to burning fat for fuel. Fat also provides insulation to the body so that we don’t get too cold (or hot); acts like a cushion, protecting all of our internal organs from damage; and is needed to help absorb certain nutrients during digestion, such as fat-soluble vitamins.
Fat contains 9 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrate and protein contain 4 calories per gram. That’s why fat can be so, well, fattening. Loading up on high-fat foods can spell trouble in terms of maintaining or trying to lose weight.
How much fat should we eat? Most dietary guidelines recommend that around 30% of our total daily calories come from fat. This boils down to anywhere from about 45 to about 85 grams of fat a day, depending on how many calories you need. Some people need more fat, some need less. In case you have a hard time picturing grams, visualize a pat of
butter—that’s what 5 grams of fat looks like.
Fat impacts our heart health, too. By now, you’re probably aware that some fats aren’t good for us because they can raise blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat, found in foods such as butter, red meat, and whole-milk dairy foods, and trans fat, found in some shortenings, margarines, and processed foods, are the culprits. They increase LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, thereby increasing a person’s chances of getting heart disease. On the flip side, monounsaturated fat (found in foods such as olive oil, canola oil, and avocadoes) and polyunsaturated fat (found in foods such as corn oil, soybean oil, and fatty fish) can lower a person’s chances of getting heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
In my next blog entry, we’ll take a closer look at how fat impacts diabetes control, so stay tuned.