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The word "fat" tends to carry a rather negative connotation. But just like carbohydrates, this nutrient is often misunderstood and villainized in popular dieting culture. Eating the right amount of dietary fat is just as necessary as every other nutrient! Certain kinds of healthy fat play roles in fighting cell damage, minimizing inflammation, and keeping your heart healthy.
However, not all fats are made equally. While some kinds of fat – specifically, plant-based fats – come with numerous health benefits, other unhealthy fats can damage your body. Here's our guide to identifying healthy plant-based fats, plus how you can add more vegan healthy fats to your diet to give your body all the nutrients it needs to thrive.
First, what is a fat?
Fat, otherwise known as "lipid," is a nutrient that you can get from your diet. Contrary to popular belief, you should be eating a certain amount of dietary fat every day to give your body the tools to carry out all of its necessary functions. For example, dietary fat is necessary for the full absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins E, K, and D! Fats also provide energy, keep your temperature regulated, and help form the structures for cells and hormones.
While a certain amount of dietary fat is important for your health, it’s important to note that you should still be limiting your overall fat intake to no more than 35% of your overall calorie intake. Each gram of fat is highly calorie-dense, providing roughly 9 calories per gram, so eating a diet high in fat of any kind can contribute to weight gain over time.
Not all fats are built the same, either. The different kinds of dietary fats can be classified based on their chemical structures, and each can affect your body and overall health differently. There are four main categories of dietary fat:
- polyunsaturated fats
- monounsaturated fats
- saturated fats
- trans fats.
Because the different fats can affect your body so differently, choosing "good," healthy fats in your food choices more often than "bad" fats is essential.
Which types of fat are the healthiest?
Researchers have long-established that the best types of fat for your health are unsaturated fats. These types of fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, like vegetable oils. There are two different kinds of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).
These include both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, are thought to help improve your overall cholesterol levels by lowering your "bad" LDL cholesterol. This is good news for your heart health because high levels of LDL can accumulate and stick to your arteries, eventually contributing to issues like atherosclerosis (a "hardening" of your artery walls) and high blood pressure.
However, it’s important to note that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s you eat also matters here. Having too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3s in your diet has been linked to increased inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and other serious health issues. Unfortunately, Western diets tend to be richer in omega-6s than omega-3s. Because omega-3 fatty acids can also act as anti-inflammatory agents and are necessary for proper brain development, it's usually beneficial to increase your omega-3 intake wherever you can.*
Monounsaturated fatty acid
Monounsaturated fatty acid intake can help improve cholesterol levels by lowering the levels of the “bad” cholesterol LDL and increasing levels of the “good” cholesterol HDL. They’re also thought to help improve your blood sugar control, which is good news if you are concerned about diabetes or other metabolic conditions.
The difference between a healthy and unhealthy fat
While healthy fats can promote better heart and immune health, eating too many “unhealthy” fats can have the opposite effect.
- Saturated fat, which is found most often in animal-based foods like meat and dairy products, is consistently linked to high cholesterol levels and subsequent heart health issues. Because of this, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans now recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake.
- Trans fats are a type of fat often formed during food processing. For example, the hydrogenation of vegetable oils to turn them into solid margarine creates trans fats. This is arguably the worst kind of dietary fat for your heart health since it can affect your cholesterol levels and promote inflammation. Your body doesn’t need trans fats at all, so you should eat as little of this type of fat as possible (ideally none). Trans fats have actually been banned in American food production altogether, but there are still small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats in some meat and dairy products.
On the other hand, healthy fats can contribute to the fight against those common issues that hurt your heart health and other systems in your body by fighting inflammation, improving cholesterol levels, and minimizing cellular damage. These plant-based monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are part of the reason that following a vegan diet can lower cholesterol levels!
Here’s a quick test for identifying a healthy vs. an unhealthy fat: if a fat is liquid at room temperature (like vegetable oil), it’s probably a healthy unsaturated fat. If it is solid at room temperature (like butter or lard), it’s likely a saturated or trans fat. There are some exceptions to this, of course. For example, coconut oil is a saturated fat but may be more beneficial than animal-based saturated fats. Also, some vegetable oils like corn oil have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, like corn oil, which can promote inflammation. Still, this gives you a good starting point for identifying unsaturated vs. saturated fats.
How to get more good fat in your diet
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans suggest getting less than 10% of your calories per day from saturated fats starting at the age of 2 and as few trans fats as possible. So to boost your heart health through your dietary fat intake, choose unsaturated fats as often as possible!
Here’s how to do it:
- A rule of thumb is to choose plant-based over animal fats whenever possible. For example, olive oil for cooking instead of butter is a good swap that increases your intake of healthy saturated fats.
- Even better, try following a plant-based diet! Eating more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds (and less animal-based foods like meat and dairy) ensures that you’re getting better vegan healthy fats. It’s also been linked to better overall heart health!
- Eat fewer processed foods whenever possible since processing can increase trans fat. Stick to whole, fresh foods more often.
- Supplement when necessary. Some fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, can be hard to get enough of, especially if you are following a vegan or vegetarian diet. In cases like these, consider adding a vegan-friendly supplement like algae oil pills to ensure you are meeting your needs.
9 Healthy Plant-Based Fats
Try adding these healthy fats to your diet for better heart health!
1. Algae oil
Fatty fish like tuna and salmon are excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, but fish isn't suitable for everyone. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or concerned about the impacts of commercial fishing on the environment, eating more fish isn’t a solution. Unfortunately, many vegan healthy fat sources of omega-3s only have ALA, which your body needs to convert to EPA or DHA in order to use.
Algae oil is the best vegan-friendly substitute for popular omega-3 supplements like krill oil and fish oil. They’re made from microalgae and are rich in both EPA and DHA, unlike any other plant-based omega-3 source!
Whether you’re eating them on top of toast or as an ingredient in your guacamole, avocados are high in monounsaturated fat. They also come with plenty of other healthy nutrients like fiber, potassium, and Vitamins B6, C, and E – all of which are great for your immune system!
3. Coconut oil
Unlike many other plant-based healthy fats, coconut oil is rich in saturated fat. However, it contains saturated fat lauric acid, which may help improve overall cholesterol levels. Moderation is key here, though, since it still falls under the saturated fat category.
When it comes to vegan healthy fats, nuts are a superfood! Walnuts, in particular, are an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which is converted by your body to DHA and EPA.
5. Chia seeds
Similarly, chia seeds are another great plant-based omega-3 fatty acid source. They’re also an excellent source of fiber, which is doubly good for improving your cholesterol levels.
6. Olive oil
Olive oil is one of the best vegan sources of monounsaturated fatty acids. In particular, extra-virgin olive oil, which has been less processed than other types of olive oil, has been linked to a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease in several studies.
The small-but-might flaxseed is considered a "superfood" since it's a rich source of omega-3 fatty acid ALA and dietary fiber, making it an excellent nutritional staple for fighting inflammation and oxidative stress.
8. Dark chocolate
The cocoa butter in dark chocolate is full of oleic acid, the same kind of monounsaturated fatty acid found in olive oil. The darker the better: chocolate that has been processed with additional milk introduces more saturated fats into the mix.
9. Sunflower seeds
Sunflower oil is rich in both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Sunflower seed butter has also become a popular and tasty choice for loading up on vegan healthy fats.
Even though they tend to get a bad rap in the nutrition world, your body needs some dietary fat to function properly. The best way to ensure that you're getting enough healthy fats is to eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, increasing your unsaturated foods intake. Limiting your animal intake is also a good idea since it can help moderate your intake of "bad" saturated and trans fats. When it comes to dietary fat, the more plant-based, the better!