Learn about the importance of getting enough fat in your diet and why low fat diets are a thing of the past. We’ll give a list of healthy plant based fats and list the smoke points for popular plant based cooking oils (and also tell you why that’s important).
Dietary fat was once thought to be unhealthy and believed to be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Low-fat diets were immensely popular in the 80s and 90s, however, more recent studies show that some dietary fats can actually have health benefits.
Fats can be consumed from many animal products like red meat and dairy products, but if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need plant-based sources of healthy fats. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about dietary fat, which fats to choose more frequently, the health benefits of the mighty omega-3 and a list of healthy plant based fats.
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What are the different types of fats?
Not all fats are created equal. While there are no bad foods and it’s okay to eat all foods in moderation, healthy fats should make up most of your fat intake. Healthy fat sources have been shown to promote heart health, while consuming too many unhealthy fats may be associated with chronic diseases.
There are two different kinds of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
According to the American Heart Association, eating foods that contain monounsaturated fat can improve your blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. Oils that have monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature but change to solid when chilled. Oils containing monounsaturated fats also add vitamin E to the diet, an important antioxidant that most Americans do not get enough of.
Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids which are considered essential fats because the body cannot make them on its own. These essential fatty acids must be consumed from the diet. Plant foods and oils are the main sources of polyunsaturated fats.
Research has shown that much like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can also lower your risk for heart disease by supporting healthy blood cholesterol levels.
Saturated fats should be eaten sparingly in small amounts. Too much saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol levels and increase LDL cholesterol.
Most saturated fats are animal fats. They are found in high-fat meats and full-fat dairy products. Saturated fat sources include:
- fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb
- dark chicken meat and poultry skin
- high-fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream)
- tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter)
Trans fats are well-known for their negative health effects including increased risk of long-term inflammation, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. They are found mostly in processed foods to inexpensively preserve shelf life.
In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of partially hydrogenated oil in most processed foods in the United States. However, the ban has not been fully implemented so some processed foods may still contain trans fat.
In the U.S., food manufacturers can legally label their products “trans-fat-free” if there are less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Limit your portions of processed foods to avoid trans fat intake.
Carefully check labels and avoid anything that has partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients. Unfortunately, sometimes reading the label cannot ensure you’ll be trans-fat-free. Some processed foods, like regular vegetable oils including soybean and canola oil, contain trans fats but are not listed on the label or ingredients list.
Why do we need healthy fats?
Dietary fat is an essential macronutrient that the body needs to function properly. Healthy fats play an important role in supporting multiple systems and processes in the body. These fats are a critical part of the human cell wall along with serving many other important functions.
Healthy fats like omega-3s are incredibly important for heart health. These fatty acids help reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood that can increase the risk of artery-clogging plaque-buildup. They can also modestly decrease blood pressure and lower the risk of heart beat irregularities (arrhythmias).
Dietary fats are required for optimal hormone health. The body cannot synthesize some hormones without it. Adequate dietary fat intake helps to support appropriate hormone levels in the body, including estradiol, testosterone, and cortisol.
Dietary fat is also important for brain health during developmental years and into late life. Good sources of fat help support fetal brain development and keep the brain healthy into older adulthood.
Omega-3 fatty acids in particular may help manage or prevent depressive symptoms, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain-related dysfunction. The ketogenic diet (a high-fat, low-carb diet) has been used in conjunction with pharmacological therapies to treat epilepsy.
Essential fatty acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot produce on its own. There are several types of omega-3 fatty acids, differing in chemical shape and size. The three most common are:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This 20-carbon fatty acid’s main function is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA may also improve symptoms of depression
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): A 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA makes up about 8% of brain weight and supports proper brain development and function
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This 18-carbon fatty acid can be converted into EPA and DHA, although the process is not very efficient. ALA has been shown to support heart health, the immune system, and the nervous system
Omega-6 fatty acids are also present in some polyunsaturated fats. The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid. The body can convert linolenic acid to longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (AA).
Like EPA, AA produces eicosanoids. However, the eicosanoids that AA produces increase inflammation and are known as pro-inflammatory.
Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are an important part of a strong immune system. Unfortunately, if the body produces too many, it can increase the risk of inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
Research shows a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids to be between 1-to-1 and 4-to-1, but evidence suggests that many Americans consuming a typical Western diet may consume a ratio of between 15-to-1 and almost 17-to-1. Yet another reason to consider limiting animal foods and eating more plant foods.
List of Healthy plant-based fats
There are many animal sources of fat, however, vegan and vegetarian diets can provide plenty of good fats from plant foods. Some healthy plant-based sources of fat include:
- Chia seeds: these super seeds are not only an excellent source of omega-3 fats, they also contain antioxidants, minerals, and fiber. They may promote heart health, support strong bones, and improve blood sugar management. Add them to smoothies, puddings, or baked goods.
- Hemp seeds: technically a nut, they are rich in healthy fats and essential fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6. They are also an excellent source of protein, vitamin E, and minerals. Hemp seeds may improve digestion and reduce the risk of heart disease. Sprinkle onto salads, yogurts, cereals, or mix into smoothies.
- Coconut oil: contains medium-chain triglycerides and is known for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, improved skin and oral health, and weight loss potential. Evidence for the benefits of coconut oil for heart health is conflicting. The American Heart Association recommends against using coconut oil to reduce your risk of heart disease. Try to limit your intake to 10% of your daily calorie intake.’ You can use coconut oil in baking or for sauteing.
- Whole grains: full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, whole grains have been shown to improve digestive health, heart health, and decreased body fat. You can add oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and bulgur to your diet to increase your intake of whole grains.
- Sunflower seeds: these seeds are high in vitamin E and selenium, important antioxidants that fight inflammation, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Add them to salads, bake into muffins, or enjoy them on their own as a snack.
- Sesame seeds: a good source of fiber, protein, antioxidants, and both poly and monounsaturated fatty acids, sesame seeds may fight inflammation, support healthy bones, and lower cholesterol and triglycerides. They also support digestive and immune health. Sesame seeds add a nutty flavor and subtle crunch to many dishes. To enhance the flavor and nutrient availability of sesame seeds, roast them at 350°F (180°C) for a few minutes, stirring periodically, until they reach a light, golden brown. Try adding to stir frys, salads, yogurt, or salad dressing.
- Extra-virgin olive oil: this plant oil is an excellent source of antioxidants and both poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids. It has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and reducing inflammation. You can use olive oil in salad dressings or cooking. Toss some veggies in this heart healthy oil before roasting them in the oven.
- Flax seeds: these tiny seeds are packed with nutrients including protein, fibers, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. They may help support digestion, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, mange blood sugar, and help with weight loss. Mix them into a morning smoothie, pancake batter, homemade veggie burgers, and even overnight oats.
- Avocado: avocados are loaded with nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. They have been shown to improve gut health, decrease the risk of heart disease, and promote a healthy body weight. Avocados are extremely versatile and can be added to both savory and sweet dishes. Whip up a homemade guacamole, add to salad and grain bowls, smash on top of toast, or enjoy in chocolate avocado pudding.
- Walnuts: these nuts are packed with healthy fats, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. They are an excellent plant source of omega-3s, supporting brain heath, heart health, decreased inflammation, and healthy aging. Although high in calories, walnuts provide a host of health benefits. You can add more of these nutrient-dense nuts to your diet by sprinkling on salads, adding to baked goods, breading chicken, or as part of trail mix. Walnuts are also a big part of this almond pulp granola recipe and taste delicious!
What is a smoke point and why does it matter?
A smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and starts to degrade. When the oil begins to smoke, it has started to break down and loses its flavor and health benefits.
The ratio of fatty acids determines the smoke point, for example flaxseed oil has a 1:4 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s and a smoke point of 225°F while avocado oil has a ratio of 12:1 and its smoke point is 520°F.
Choosing the right oil for cooking is important, as you want to avoid going past the smoke point or you will burn the oil and your food. You can select the oil you cook with based on the flavor and health benefits, but be sure to consider the temperature at which you need to cook your food.
Use the list below as a guide to smoke points:
Avocado oil: 520°F
Coconut oil: 350°F
Extra-virgin olive oil: 331°F – 475°F
Grapeseed oil: 475°F
Macadamia nut oil: 410°F
Peanut oil: 450°F
Sesame oil: 410°F
Soybean oil: 450°F
Sunflower oil: 450°F
New research shows that fats aren’t as bad as they were once believed to be. While some fats are healthier than others, trans fats seem to pose the most significant risk to health. Avoid trans fats and limit foods that are high in saturated fats.
Mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to have many health benefits including reducing the risk of heart disease. It’s important to include healthy fats as part of your diet, but but you should still consume them in moderation as all fats are high in calories and can cause weight gain if consumed in excess.
- You can add more healthy fats to your diet by increasing your consumption of plant-based foods. Start by adding chia seeds, flax seeds, or hemp seeds to a breakfast smoothie, and choosing whole grains over refined.
- Reduce your intake of saturated fat by limiting your intake of animal products like meat and full-fat dairy.
- Save this post and refer back to the list of healthy plant based fats when you need inspiration.
- Check out our post on how to build a healthy smoothie for a great way to sneak in more healthy fats to your diet.
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