Including adequate amounts of healthy fats in your diet is essential for overall health. This is true for everyone, not just vegans and plant-based eaters.
Fat is a concentrated energy source that also provides cellular structure and function, maintains healthy skin, helps make hormones, enables us to absorb our fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and provides us with essential fatty acids including omega-3s.
Some of the healthiest fats just happen to be from plant-based sources! This blog post will cover what makes a fat healthy, the best vegan healthy fats to include in your diet and some common pitfalls to avoid.
Different Types of Fat
First, let’s do a brief review of the three main types of fat: saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. I would also suggest checking out the blog Best Vegan Omega 3 Sources for more on omega-3 fats.
The Bad: Trans Fat
Trans fat bottomline is the worst for your health. No one will argue this fact. There is a small amount of naturally occurring trans fats in red meat and dairy, but for the most part they are artificially made.
So, where do you find these trans fats? In processed, fried, and packaged foods using partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. A few examples would be: vegetable shortening, commercially prepared pastries, cookies, and pies, french fries, doughnuts, frozen pizza, microwaved popcorn, some non-dairy creamers.
Trans fats create inflammation, insulin resistance and have a negative impact on your cholesterol levels. All of these factors increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
In fact, the FDA has banned food companies from using trans fats5. So why do you still see partially hydrogenated oils on food labels? Manufacturers love trans fats because they help increase shelf life. Products are allowed to contain trace amounts of trans fats and can be labeled free of trans fats if they contain 0.5 grams per serving or less.
Saturated fat wins runner up in the unhealthy fats category. There will be people that will still argue this point, but there is plenty of science backing this up.
A diet rich in saturated fats has been shown to raise your total cholesterol, especially your “bad” LDL cholesterol. This promotes plaque formation in your arteries which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. Saturated fat has also been shown to increase inflammation and insulin resistance1,2,3.
The main sources of saturated fat are found in animal products like full fat dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream), meat, butter, lard, and tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil.
The Good: Unsaturated Fat
In comparison, unsaturated fats have a positive impact on your blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant foods like vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats include avocado, avocado oil, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, most nuts, high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils.
Polyunsaturated fats, which include both omega 6 and omega 3 essential fatty acids, have been found to be particularly beneficial. These sources include most oils (sunflower, safflower, soybean, sesame, corn and flaxseed oils), walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds.
In fact, reducing your saturated fat intake and replacing it with polyunsaturated fats can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease4.
The Best Vegan Healthy Fat Sources
So, now we know that the healthiest sources of fat come from predominantly unsaturated sources…that just happen to be vegan!
The following are a few of the best (and my favorite) vegan healthy fats:
Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fats. In fact, they are packed with these healthy fats. One avocado contains roughly 30g fat and 322 calories which is one reason why this fruit is great to enjoy in moderation.
This healthy fat fueled fruit is an excellent source of fiber (just half an avocado contains 6.75g) and a rich source of antioxidants, vitamin E, C, carotenoids, B vitamins including folate, potassium and magnesium.
A serving size is considered 1/3 of an avocado (50g). If you need a visual of what that looks like and how to cut your avocado check out this video.
Nuts are jammed packed with healthy fats – mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Walnuts are actually one of the only nuts that are high in plant-based Omega 3s (ALA). Check out my previous blog on Best Vegan Sources of Omega 3 to learn more about omega 3s.
Besides being a source of healthy fats and plant protein (~6g protein per 1 oz mixed nuts), nuts are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins E and K, magnesium, copper, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, and fiber.
If you’re curious to know the nutritional differences between peanuts and almonds check out the blog: Peanuts Vs Almonds.
The recommended daily serving size for nuts is 1 oz (30g) which is about 1/4 cup.
Seeds are another fantastic way to add in some healthy unsaturated fats to your diet. Similar to nuts, seeds are also energy (calorie) dense and are a rich source of antioxidants, minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus, in addition to fiber.
Out of all the seeds, pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are one of the richest sources of zinc followed by hemp seeds.
Sunflower and sesame seeds are good sources of B vitamins, vitamin E and selenium.
Chia, flax and hemp seeds are all rich plant sources of omega 3s (ALA). Flaxseeds are also rich in lignans, a type of antioxidant, as well as being a great source of fiber.
You do need to grind flaxseeds in order to get the full nutrition benefit (beyond fiber). I like buying flaxseeds from the bulk section. I store them in the fridge and then grind them using a small coffee/spice grinder right before use.
Chia seeds contain slightly more fiber than flaxseeds and require no grinding. They’re great to add to overnight oats, hot cereal, smoothies.
My favorite way to add chia seeds is to make chia pudding: 1/4 cup chia seeds in 1 cup plant-milk plus whatever fruit and spices you like. Chia seeds swell in liquid and create a tapioca-like consistency.
Hemp seeds are usually found already hulled or de-shelled. These hulled hemp seeds are called hemp hearts. While hemp hearts don’t contain as much fiber as chia and flax, they are higher in protein.
Three tablespoons of hemp hearts provides 10g of protein! You can add them to cereals, smoothies, salads or sprinkle on top of avocado or nut butter toast.
Similar to nuts, the recommended serving size for seeds is 1 oz or about 1/4 cup.
Olives are another fruit high in monounsaturated fat. They are rich in polyphenol antioxidants in addition to containing a good amount of vitamin E, fiber, iron, copper and calcium.
The one drawback of olives is that they tend to be very high in sodium since they are usually cured or packaged in a salty brine. So, if you are following a low sodium diet be mindful of portion size.
A serving size is considered around 1 oz (6-10 olives) or 1/4 cup.
5. Nut & Seed Butters
Maybe skip the nuts and seeds and go straight for the nut/seed butters! Packed with healthy fats they contain the same nutrition and add a creamy rich addition to your meal. Besides peanut butter, one of my favorites is tahini (made from sesame seed paste).
Spread some peanut or almond butter on whole wheat toast, celery, paired with sliced apples or add to smoothies, hot cereals. Stuff dates with it or make a peanut based sauce for your tofu or noodle dish. Tahini makes a great base for sauces and salad dressings.
Be aware that not all nut and seed butters are created equal. A lot of “spreads” have added oils, sugar and salt. Look for natural with ideally one ingredient – the nut or seed and that’s it!
Since nut/seed butters are dense in fat and calories the recommended daily serving size is 2 tablespoons.
6. Dark Chocolate
This is my favorite out of all the favorites. But, does dark chocolate really contain healthy fats? Yes, dark chocolate contains fat and a fair amount of saturated fat but you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Saturated fat comes in different forms and the percentage of saturated fat in dark chocolate is not the same as the saturated fat found in red meat and cheese. The main source of fat in dark chocolate comes from cocoa butter which contains an equal amount of oleic, stearic, and palmitic acids.
Oleic acid is considered a healthy monounsaturated fat. Stearic acid is a saturated fat but it does not appear to increase cholesterol.
Palmitic acid can significantly raise cholesterol, however since it only makes up one third of the fat in cocoa butter it appears to be less of a problem. The amount of palmitic acid found in red meats like beef and pork is much higher.
In addition, dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids which are powerful antioxidants and contain a good amount of iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, potassium and phosphorus.
For the most flavonoid/antioxidant benefit choose 70% or higher dark chocolates. The recommended serving size is 1 oz or 30g.
Not only are whole soy foods rich in plant protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and plant omega 3s, but they are also rich in naturally occurring fat. The fat in soy is primarily polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
So, add some edamame, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, miso, soy nuts or dry roasted edamame to your meals and snacks. If you haven’t become a fan of tempeh yet, try this Air-Fryer Tempeh Bacon recipe!
General recommended daily serving: up to 50g of soy protein or 3-5 servings.
Common Pitfalls to Avoid
As you’re optimizing your intake of vegan healthy fats, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure you maintain a balanced and nutritious diet.
The following are a few examples of common pitfalls to avoid:
1. Eating Too Many Processed Vegan Foods High in Unhealthy Fats
- Issue: Many processed vegan foods, such as packaged snacks, vegan cheese, desserts, ready-to-eat meals, and certain meat alternatives may contain excessive amounts of saturated fats (usually in the form of refined coconut oil or palm oil) in addition to added sugars and salt to enhance flavor and texture.
- Impact: Regular consumption of these foods can lead to health issues like increased cholesterol levels, heart disease, and weight gain.
- Solution: Opt for whole, minimally processed plant-based foods rich in healthy fats instead of relying heavily on processed vegan products.
2. Overconsumption of Oils & Total Fat
- Issue: While oils can be valuable sources of healthy fats, excessive intake can lead to a high calorie and fat load without the accompanying nutrients found in whole foods.
- Impact: Overconsumption can contribute to weight gain and potential health concerns like cardiovascular issues and insulin resistance.
- Solution: Use oils in moderation and incorporate healthy fats while paying attention to portion sizes. Focus on including a variety of healthy fats ideally from whole food sources and fewer packaged/processed foods with added oils.
3. Lack of Variety in Fat Sources
- Issue: Relying on only a few sources of fats in a vegan diet might limit the spectrum of essential nutrients and antioxidants obtained from diverse plant-based sources.
- Impact: Limited variety may lead to micronutrient deficiencies.
- Solution: Aim for diversity in your fat sources by including a wide range of plant-based fats to ensure a broad spectrum of nutrients and health-promoting compounds.
The Fat Bottomline
We have learned that not all fat is created equal, but there are actually a lot of vegan healthy fats to choose from.
Moderation, diversity, and a focus on whole, minimally processed foods are key principles to follow when incorporating fats into a vegan or plant-based diet.
So, what healthy fat sources are you going to start adding to your diet?