I recently spoke at an event about how to transition to a plant-based diet. It was overall a very friendly crowd of mostly ladies who were curious about nutrients, how to get enough protein and if there was a need to take any supplements on a vegan diet. One audience member, however, was particularly worried about fat and started explaining that a decent amount of animal fats in your diet is good and healthy. This conversation inspired me to write about the topic of fat and set some facts straight, so we all feel comfortable getting enough and the right fats into our diets.
Let’s start with the basics: fat, along with protein and carbohydrates, is one of the three macronutrients. It’s abundant in larger quantities in foods (hence the word ‘macro’) compared to micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, which are present in smaller quantities. It’s essential to state that we need fat, protein, and carbohydrates in our diet as they are essential to keep our body and mind healthy. All three macronutrients can be found in both animal and plant sources, and a lot of research is confirming that plant-based sources of these are healthier than animal-based sources. We will dive into that in a few minutes, as it refers to fat in particular, but before we do so, note that there is no need to count your macros unless you are a competitive athlete. If you eat enough calories, a wide variety of plant-based foods in an abundance of different colors, you will be fine. Definitely get your blood checked once a year, but don’t obsess over numbers.
Animal Fats vs. Plant-Based Fats
Back to fats: you can find fat in animal products such as meat and fish, as well as in plant products such as nuts, seeds, and avocados. First, you should always try to stick to whole sources of fat and not use refined fats such as those found in oils. Oils are stripped of all other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so there is not much other added value in a teaspoon of olive oil, other than it being about 100 calories of pure fat. I know this might blow you away because we keep hearing about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet and imagine all Italians gulping down liters of olive oil every day but that is not the case. The Mediterranean diet is not healthier than the SAD (Standard American Diet) because of olive oil but rather despite olive oil. Keep in mind that the Mediterranean diet comes with very little meat, lots of fresh veggies and fruit, as well as grains and legumes and is accompanied by pretty low levels of stress.
But what is the difference between animal and plant-based sources of fat? Animal fat usually has high levels of saturated fat, while plant-based fats have high levels of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats have been proven to lower levels of cholesterol and protect from heart disease as well as cardiovascular disease. Saturated fats increase cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and can increase the risk for heart disease. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products and are solid at room temperature. Unfortunately, coconut oil is also a saturated fat. (In fact, a Harvard professor called coconut oil pure poison!)
Another really interesting point concerns diabetes type 2 and pre-diabetes. The common knowledge is that sugar, meaning carbohydrates, lead to diabetes type 2. The truth, however, is more complex and researchers such as Dr. Neil Barnard have proven that overdose of fat in your diet will slow down the activity of insulin receptors and hence lead to insulin resistance, which then causes diabetes type 2. So sugar is not the sole culprit in type 2 diabetes–it’s also fat.
The Role of Fat
Why eat fat at all you might ask? For one, fat helps the body absorb all fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Without fat, the benefits of these would be null as your body would not transform them into usable matter. Fat is also needed for brain development as it helps protein do its job. Furthermore, fat insulates your body and protects your organs. Fat also keeps your skin and hair beautiful and shiny. So yes, you definitely need fat in your diet.
Most plant-based doctors, such as Doctor John McDougall for example, will recommend you get about 10-20% of your calories from whole plant-based fats and focus on getting most of your calories from carbohydrates (about 70-80%) and then again 10-20% from plant-based sources of protein.
What kind of fats do you incorporate into your diet?
Get more like this—Subscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!