Fat is essential for maintaining good heart health, reducing inflammation, and maintaining optimal body function.
People completely misunderstood and underestimated fat for some time, believing that eating fat in their diet is both unhealthy and causes weight gain.
This message is changing as high-fat diets grow in popularity, whilst fat is being recognized for what it is - a macronutrient that's crucial for many bodily functions.
A few of the most important reasons to consume healthy fat include:
- Provides energy and supports cell growth
- Lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol
- Reduces the potential risk of heart disease and inflammation
- Helps regulate blood pressure and blood clotting
- Supports brain development, mental health, and the maintenance of skin, hair, and nails
What Is Fat
Fats, or fatty acids, are a three-molecule structure known as triglycerides. Your body can create certain triglycerides, but is unable to make others meaning you need to eat them regularly to support bodily function. These fats are called "essential fats." Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the essential fats your body cannot create on its own.
Fats can be divided into short chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids, or long chain fatty acids depending on the number of these molecules.
Short chain fats are less than 6 carbons in length. They are found in food and made in the body when a longer fat is broken apart by enzymes.
Medium chain fats are between 6 and 12 carbons long and they are the fats found in coconut oil.
Long chain fats are essential for life, and include omega-3, 6, and 9 fats. These are 13 carbons or longer. The omega signifies where the double bond is located. For example, omega-3 means the double bond is at the third carbon position.
Fats can be further divided into saturated and unsaturated fats and unsaturated fats are further divided into two separate groups – monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats
Saturated fats (SFA) are used in the body to strengthen cell walls, so the cells can fight against bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Saturated fats also contain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as cholesterol, which your body uses for hormone production.
A fat is saturated when each carbon (C) has two hydrogens (H) and there are no double bonds. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature, are very stable and do not oxidize easily when heated.
A fat is unsaturated when it contains double bonds or hydrogen (H) attached to the carbon (C). These are typically liquid at room temperature. Most of these fats do well as dressings or food toppers.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFA) are also considered to be fairly stable but under lower heats. Olive oil and avocado oil are examples of MUFAs.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are usually less stable than saturated and monounsaturated fats, which means they can become rancid and toxic quickly. EPA and DHA, both of which are essential for brain and other bodily functions, are considered polyunsaturated fats. A diet too high in PUFAs can result in increased free radical levels and are associated with an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and other inflammatory diseases. These fats should only be used for cold preparations and include nut and seed oils like hazelnut and sesame.
Trans fats naturally occur in minimal amounts in some animal products. Artificial trans fats, on the other hand, are fats made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to solidify it. Trans fats are dangerous to your health, increasing cholesterol and heart disease risks. The FDA currently bans trans fats in American food products.
You cannot survive without eating fat, but not all fats are the same. Certain types of dietary fat are better than others, with better health benefits to reap from them.
With animal-based sources as a massive contributor to dietary fat intake, vegans who remove meat, dairy, eggs, and fish may wonder how they're going to consume a high-fat vegan diet.
There are, however, many delicious and nutritious plant-based foods to help you get your fill of vegan healthy fats.
Avocados are as nutritious as they are delicious. Native to Mexico and Central America, avocados are enjoyed in almost every country worldwide.
They are a fantastic source of healthy fats, vitamin E & K, folate and fiber! These creamy, tender nutrient-packed fruits are composed of 77% fat, with the majority of it being monounsaturated fat. And one medium avocado will not only provide you with 21 grams of fat but also twice the potassium of a banana.
They are incredibly versatile and taste delicious no matter how you eat them.
Nuts are really crunchy, nutrient-dense and offer a good amount of fiber, plant-based protein and unsaturated fats.
Nuts are one of the best sources of fat in a vegan diet. Nuts are ideally designed for snacking. You can simply enjoy them by the handful, or try creamy, chunky nut butter.
They can be added to your whole grains, granola, energy balls and salad and made into butters and spreads as well as vegan cheeses.
Some of the best nuts to include in your diet are:
- Walnuts (omega-3)
- Almonds (vitamin E)
- Brazil nuts (selenium)
- Pecans (manganese)
- Pistachios (omega-3)
- Peanuts (vitamin B3 & protein)
Seeds are considered even healthier than the popular walnuts, almonds or peanuts because they are packed with potentially critical nutrients for vegans (and omnivores too).
The same is true for the butters made from the seeds.
Seeds are full of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They can be enjoyed out of hand or as salad toppings, tahini dressings, energy balls or added to baked goods, sauces as smoothies. You can even use them to make your own protein powder.
Some seeds are worth mentioning because they are especially good for you!
- Hemp seeds (omega-3)
- Pumpkin seeds (zinc)
- Sesame seeds (calcium)
2 seeds in particular are worth a little extra attention:
While all seeds are nutritious and great plant-based sources of fat, chia seeds have rightfully earned their place as a true superfood. 2 tbsp of chia seeds contains approximately 8.5g of fat and most of it is in the form of omega-3 fatty acids.
Fatty fish is generally considered a key source of omega-3, but if you’re following a plant-based diet, chia seeds are a fantastic alternative.
You can use them to make puddings, to thicken sauces, in your smoothies or ground into flours to add to baked goods
Flaxseeds are one of the richest plant-based sources of omega3 fatty acids. One tbsp of flaxseed contains around 1.8g of omega 3s - enough to satisfy your daily omega3 requirement.
Grind them into your favourite smoothie, add them to granola bars or simply sprinkle them on your whole grains, for a bit of that healthy, delish, crunch.
Coconut products range from coconut meat and flakes to coconut milk, oil and water. Coconut products are rich in saturated fats, but unlike most sources of saturated fats, this fruit comprises medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which the liver can easily break down and convert into energy or ketones.
MCTs help to curb hunger and keep you full and satiated for longer, allowing you to effortlessly reduce calories.
Coconut milk is a great dairy-free alternative to milk and all types of coconut can be used in both sweet and savory preparations in anything from ice-cream to curries.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Cold-pressed or extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
One tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil has 14 grams of fat. 73% of these fats are monounsaturated oleic acid which, as studies have suggested, is anti-inflammatory and has been associated with cancer prevention.
EVOO’s high concentration of monounsaturated fats also makes it resistant to high temperatures and, contrary to popular belief, makes it a good choice for cooking.
High quality dark chocolate is not only delicious, but nutritious too! A 30g bar of dark chocolate (70% or higher cocoa content) contains around 11g of fat.
Besides being a rich source of plant-based fat, dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants, fiber, iron, magnesium, copper and manganese. Added to that, research has shown dark chocolate consumption can help in preventing heart disease.
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Try to include one healthy fat in each meal or snack. If you do have a meal or snack and you’re still hungry afterward, add a healthy fat to make it more filling and satisfying. And, of course, The more whole-food sources you choose, the better.
If you are trying to determine exactly how much fat you need to include in your diet or how to balance your intakes of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated or your omega-fatty acids, reaching out to a qualified professional can help you understand how much fat is appropriate for you and your goals