It is mid January, which means that a lot of people are struggling with New Year’s resolutions to eat less fatty food. I find this ironic since my goal this year is actually to eat more fat. As a vegan, my diet is very low in fat, which can actually be unhealthy since fat is needed for normal function and even to help weight loss. Of course I don’t plan on increasing my fat intake by gorging myself on cookies and chips. I plan on incorporating more healthy fat foods into meals, like avocado spreads and nut cheeses.
Why Does Fat Have a Bad Reputation?
In the 1980s, reports came out that identified fat as the biggest culprit in obesity and health problems. The reports specifically blamed saturated fats, but health officials assumed that it would be too complicated to explain the different types of fat so they just recommended that people cut all fats. Hence, the era of “low fat” was born.
Ironically, Americans got the fatter during the low-fat boom. Apparently, food doesn’t taste very good without fat. So, in attempt to make their products palatable, manufacturers just substituted sugars and other empty carbs in place of the fats. They could market their products as “low fat” – implying that the products were healthy – even though the products contained the same amount of calories as before. Even people who weren’t eating processed food didn’t always make the best nutritional choices. They just replaced fatty cheese, milk, and meats with carbs like potatoes and rice. Research now shows that carbs are just as bad, if not worse, than fat when it comes to obesity and heart disease.
Luckily, most people today know that not all fat is bad. In fact, we need fat in our diets and healthy fats can actually help weight loss.
(Sources: PBS, NPR, LiveScience)
What Are Healthy Fats?
If we want to simplify it, we can break fat into bad fats (trans fats and saturated fats) and good fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats). Of course, it isn’t as simple as good vs. bad fats. For example, there are more than a dozen different types of saturated fats and some have health benefits, like how coconut oil is loaded with saturated fat but is “good for you” whereas the fat from bacon is “bad for you.”
This type of fat is a real devil. Trans fats are found naturally in meats and animal products. However, most trans fats in our diets come from processed foods and are made with a creepy process called hydrogenation. Basically, hydrogen molecules are put through the fat molecules so a chemical reaction occurs and the fat goes from liquid to solid. Why do this? Because foods containing hydrogenated oils last longer and have a better texture. Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol levels (HDL). The National Academy of Sciences says that there is no safe level for consumption of trans fats. Avoid eating trans fats!
There is a lot of controversy lately about whether saturated fats are “good” or “bad” for you. Like with the fat scare in the 1980s, the information on saturated fats has been way too generalized. There are dozens of types of saturated fat and not all are bad for you. Yet, all types of saturated fats have been lumped together and demonized. New studies are showing that saturated fat might not be as bad as previously thought or even good for you, but the American Heart Association still recommends lowering saturated fat intake to reduce risk of heart disease. More on this later in the article.
Polyunsaturated fat is a class of fats which includes Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats are generally referred to as “healthy fats”, and they are shown to reduce bad cholesterol levels and increase good cholesterol levels. They are crucial for forming cell walls and blood clotting. Unlike saturated fats which are produced by our livers, our bodies cannot make polyunsaturated fats so we need to consume them through food. However, simply calling all polyunsaturated fats “good” isn’t necessarily accurate. While studies do show that consuming Omega 6 can lower risk of heart disease, studies also show that consuming high amounts of Omega 6 leads to inflammation (which in turn leads to numerous other problems). The goal should be to increase Omega 3 while lowering Omega 6.
Monounsaturated fat is considered the “healthiest” fat to eat, specifically a type of monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. It lowers bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol levels, protecting the heart. Oleic acid also promotes the production of antioxidants in the body, which in turn can help protect the body against disease.
(Sources: Mercola, College of Agricultural Sciences, Chicago Tribune, WiseGeek, Harvard Health, Chemistry Explained)
Why You Need Fat
Our bodies need fat to survive. There is fat in the membrane of every cell in our bodies. Fat also helps regulate virtually every bodily process including heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, and nervous system activity. In our cells, fat eliminates waste while allowing nutrients to enter.
Many of the vitamins that our bodies need are fat soluble. This means that they are transported to where they need to go in our bodies through dietary fat. Without enough dietary fat, you can suffer deficiencies in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. If you care about having great-looking skin, healthy bones, and preventing disease, you will want healthy fats in your diet to get these vitamins!
Fats are also important for hormone production and regulation. Ever wonder why skinny girls (Olympic gymnasts being an extreme example) have their periods later than other girls? It is because their lower bodily fat.
(Sources: Bodybuilding, Ask Dr. Sears, Chemistry Explained)
How Healthy Fats Helps Weight Loss
Fat contains about 9 calories per gram. Compare this to carbs and proteins which both provide about 4 calories per gram. This makes fat a great source of energy. It might seem counterintuitive to consume more calories if you want to lose weight. However, eating healthy fats actually helps weight loss.
Eating Fat Helps Burn Fat
Think that you will start burning stored fat if you cut fat from your diet? This might seem logical, but our bodies don’t work that way. We actually need a supply of fat to help our livers burn fat. Specifically, fat helps break down existing fat by activating PPAR-alpha and fat-burning pathways through the liver. Without new fat coming in, our bodies become very inefficient at burning fat. Low-fat diets also affect our adipokine hormones that are important for fat burning. Low fat = lower metabolism of fats!
Eating Fat Makes You Feel Full Longer
Fat is a lot harder to break down than carbohydrates (especially simple carbs like refined white flour and sugar). So, eating fat can help you feel satiated longer and keep hunger cravings at bay. Healthy monounsaturated fats also are shown to stabilize blood sugar levels. That means you don’t have the energy highs and lows that lead to sugar cravings, binge eating, and fat storage.
Fat Aids Muscle Formation
A pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat in the body. So, to keep your metabolism high, you need to increase your muscle mass. Think muscle is all about protein? You also need to eat fat to increase muscle. Various studies have found that polyunsaturated fats, particularly Omega 3, increases protein synthesis to increase muscle mass and prevent muscle deterioration.
(Sources: Livestrong 1, Livestrong 2, Bodybuilding, National Institute of Health)
Is Saturated Fat Good or Bad?
Forget any generalized claim that saturated fats are “good” or “bad” for you. There are about 24 types of saturated fats and some are better or worse than others. Many of these fat foods also contain other properties like antioxidants which improve heart health, so you cannot sum everything up as “good” or “bad”. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture with saturated fats.
There are three main types of saturated fat that we eat: stearic acid, palmitic acid and lauric acid.
- Stearic acid saturated fats: These saturated fats get converted into monounsaturated fat in the body, so won’t harm your cholesterol levels.
- Palmitic acid and lauric acid saturated fats: These do raise bad LDL cholesterol levels. However, they can also raise good HDL cholesterol levels too so there is debate as to whether this cancels out the increase of LDL cholesterol.
Based on what the fats do to our cholesterol levels, we could make the generalization that stearic acid saturated fats are “healthy” and palmitic acid and lauric acid are “maybe harmful.” However, even these two fats can be considered “healthy” in some situations.
Lauric acid — which is abundant in coconut oil — is a natural antiviral and can fight flu and also fungal infections like candida. Lauric acid is also shown to help burn fat by supporting liver function. Sources of lauric acid are also usually high in antioxidants and vitamins the body needs. By contrast, palmitic acid isn’t associated with many health benefits. However, palmitic acid is usually found along with lauric acid, so foods with palmitic acid can still be good for you.
List of Healthy Fats
Before listing healthy fats, I want to emphasize that nutrition is never as simple as “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Some foods may have high levels of healthy fats, but also contain high levels of unhealthy trans or saturated fats. And let’s not forget that there is more to heart disease than fat and its impact on cholesterol!
When choosing foods, look at the total nutritional value and not just the fat content. So, skip the mayo which is loaded in saturated fats, cholesterol, and additives and instead slather your sandwich with some avocado which is a healthy fat and also loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
As a general rule, fats from plants are healthier than fats from animal products, hence why vegetarians have a 32% lower rate of heart disease than meat eaters. Vegans have even lower rates of heart disease as cholesterol is only found in animal products.
(Sources: Science Daily, PCRM)
List of Healthy Monounsaturated Fats
- Oils: olive, canola, sunflower, peanut, sesame, mustard oil, and many specialty oils (nut oils, avocado oil – these are probably too expensive to use every day but makes for a nice salad dressing base!)
- Nuts: macadamia, hazelnut, pecans, almonds, cashews, pistachio, acorn (try using almond flour instead of carb-laden wheat flour when baking sweets! Buy cheap raw almond flour here)
- Seeds: sesame, sunflower, pepitas
List of Healthy Polyunsaturated Fats
- Oils: safflower, grapeseed, sunflower, walnut, soy, sesame, peanut
- Seeds: Sunflower, sesame, pumpkin, flax, watermelon, chia (buy cheap organic chia seeds here)
- Nuts: walnuts, pine nuts
- Soy products
Healthy Saturated Fats List
- Coconut oil
- Cacoa (buy cheap organic cacao here)
- Nuts (especially macadamia and cashew nuts)
- Peanut butter
- Sunflower oil
- Soybean oil
How to Tell If a Fat is Healthy
Not sure whether to eat a food? Follow these guidelines:
- If it is a processed food, don’t eat it!
- If you’ve just got to eat some processed food, check to see if it has hydrogenated oil. Avoid hydrogenated oil (trans fat) at all costs!
- “Bad” saturated and trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature — think margarine or the fat on meat
- “Good” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature — think olive oil or sesame oil
- Is the fatty food come from a plant, like nuts, seeds, olives, cocoa, or coconut? Then eat it!
Recommended Healthy Fat Products
Here are some of our favorite healthy fatty foods. Use them in salads, smoothies or even cookies.
Organic Coconut Oil
|Raw Almond Flour
22oz for $11.00
*These represent the latest prices at the time of writing. Prices sometimes change, so please forgive us for any discrepancies!
Wondering how to get more healthy fats in your diet? Here are 7 ways to eat more healthy fat.
Also read about the best sources of Omega 3, DHA and EPA fats
Want to lose weight? Read about how the vegan diet helps weight loss.