Low-Fat? Healthy Fat? Fat-Free?

Straight Talk About Dietary Fats in the Vegan Diet and How to Navigate Them

There is a tremendous amount of confusion around the consumption of dietary fat and its effect on health. Some health experts recommend no added fat at all, while others tell us to enjoy heart-healthy olive oil. Canola oil, once sold as healthy oil, has fallen from grace, while coconut oil has had the reverse trajectory. It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin! 

As a health coach, I have been trained to not vilify any of the macro nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, or fats. Each person is biologically individual, with vastly different lifestyles, heredity, current health levels, and activity levels, and therefore can thrive on very varied diets. If, for example, you are suffering from insulin resistance and overweight, your diet will need to be different from an athlete training for sporting events. The following, then, is a basic primer on dietary fats in the vegan diet that you can customize to your own needs and preferences.

The first thing we can say about fat is that it is extremely calorie-dense. It is very easy to over eat your daily caloric needs on a fat-rich diet, even if you are consuming “healthy” fats.

Counting the calories

The first thing we can say about fat is that it is extremely calorie-dense. Fat has nine calories per gram, as opposed to just four calories per gram for carbohydrates and protein. In other words, a little bit goes a long way. It is very easy to over eat your daily caloric needs on a fat-rich diet, even if you are consuming “healthy” fats. So with everything I say below, remember that fat consumption is an issue of moderation and careful measuring.

Saturated fat

One of the most harmful forms of dietary fat is saturated fat. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL – the “bad” cholesterol) levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type two diabetes. It is found mostly in animal products (hurray for vegans!), and the only source of saturated fat in the plant-world is coconut.

Trans fat

However, now considered even more dangerous than saturated fat is partially-hydrogenated unsaturated fat, or trans fat. Trans fats are plentiful in the vegan diet in the form of margarine, spreads and dips, baked goods, crackers, chips, processed foods, veggie burgers, and fried foods. Trans fats are particularly dangerous and deadly and have been banned from restaurants in many European countries and in New York City. We are even seeing clogged arteries and high cholesterol levels in children who often eat a diet naturally high in trans fatty “kiddie” foods.

Some fat is necessary for human health. The best fats to use are the ones that come to us in their natural form: raw nuts, avocado, olives, seeds, etc.

Necessary fats

Some fat is necessary for human health. The best fats to use are the ones that come to us in their natural form: raw nuts, avocado, olives, raw seeds, and even some fresh coconut. But again, remember moderation and portion control. Once we start refining these fats by turning them into oils, we greatly reduce their health-promoting qualities and vastly raise their caloric potential.  We often don’t realize how much olive oil we are drizzling over a dish the way we would if we were eating olives plain. Nut butters that are just crushed nuts are fine health-wise, but again can be a little too easy to over eat for many people. 

The other big problem with oils is that when heated they form free radicals.  Free radicals can cause damage to the cells in our bodies, showing up as premature aging and irregular cell growth. So if you are going to eat oils, it is best to eat them unheated and uncooked, drizzled lightly on top of a salad or steamed vegetable dish.

Cooking advice

  • Sauteing vegetables: I have found it quite easy to cook with no added fat, just by water- or broth. To do so, heat your pan over medium-high heat until a drop of water skittles across the surface of the pan. Add the vegetables and enough broth to keep things from sticking, adding more liquid as needed.
  • In baked goods, I substitute mashed banana or apple sauce for most of the fat.
  • For popcorn, I just put the kernels in a glass bowl in the microwave, cover it with a plate and off they go. (A hot air popper is another great solution.)

Flax seed oil, like other “finishing” oils should never be heated and should be stored in the refrigerator.

If you absolutely must cook with oils, here is a list of oils ranked by their smoke-point, the point where they break down into unhealthy substances:

  • High heat oils for frying, or popcorn popping: almond oil, avocado oil, raw sesame oil (NOT toasted), and sunflower oil. 
  • Medium heat oils for sauteing, wok stir-frying, and baking: coconut oil, grapeseed oil, high oleic safflower oil.
  • Low heat oils for stir-frying over medium heat or to be used unheated in dressings or sauces: olive oil, peanut oil and walnut oil (unrefined).
  • Finishing oils which should never be heated and should be stored in the refrigerator: flaxseed oil and toasted sesame oil.
  • If you are wondering where canola oil lies, it’s a medium- heat oil, but it is highly processed and goes quickly rancid. If you must use it, go for organic only.

Low fat meal plans and websites

For lots of low-fat vegan recipe ideas and further info on dietary fats, check out the following meal plans and websites:

  • The Happy Herbivore meal plans which we reviewed here
  • 28-days of awesome low-fat vegan meal plans for free at Engine 2 diet.
  • Also free, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine’s 21-Day Kick-Start
  • Fat Free Vegan food blog which won 2nd place on our 2012 Vegan Food Blog Guide
 

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Emily is a board certified holistic health coach and the founder and owner of Triumph Wellness, an International Nutrition Counseling Practice.
Emily specializes in Plant-Based Nutrition, Sugar Addiction, Emotional Eating and Sports Nutrition.

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