What kinds of fats are allowed on a plant-based diet? Not all fats are created equal so let’s see which ones will help us reach our goal of optimal health the most effectively.
There are three large categories of plant-based fats. Whole, Omega-6 rich and Omega-3 rich fats. Let’s look at the characteristics of each.
Your most nutrient dense, and thus most valuable, are your fats as found in whole, unrefined foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. We need a good proportion of Omega-3 to Omega-6 oils for optimal health. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is notoriously rich in Omega-6 oils and low in Omega-3. So paying attention to foods that can help us to get optimal amounts of Omega-3s is also important for best health. Some foods that are especially high in these important fats are flaxseed and walnuts. Because Omega-3’s are highly unstable, foods rich in them are prone to go rancid easily. This is one reason they are not usually used in shelf-stable, processed foods and many people are therefore deficient in them. These fragile but important oils are best if refrigerated or frozen for storage. Flaxseed is very rich in Omega-3s but the oils deteriorate quite rapidly so it is recommended that you store flaxseed whole, and grind it in a coffee grinder in small amounts that you plan to consume the same day. Nuts also keep better if kept cold.
Of lesser quality are refined oils such as olive oil, safflower oil, coconut oil, and flaxseed oil. These all have varying quantities of important phytonutrients that depend on how they were processed, the source, and how they have been stored. The best processes are those that do not involved heat or chemical extraction. These are usually described as “expeller pressed”, which is better than chemical extraction but still involves some heat. Extra virgin, cold-pressed is the preferred method for oil extraction. Especially with olive oil, there is quite a range of quality and it can be difficult to know what is the best. Dark glass storage is preferable to plastic containers, and genuine, high quality extra virgin cold-pressed oil usually has a price to match. Virgin, organic coconut oil that is cold-pressed is the best quality for coconut oil. Flaxseed oil should be kept refrigerated from processing to consumption which means that is you order it to be shipped, make sure the whole shipment journey is under refrigerated conditions and that it is never allowed to come to room temperature. It’s one of the things that makes it a pricier oil.
Watch out for oils that are from genetically modified foods like canola and corn (found in most vegetable oil that is blended and the cheapest). Unless they are labeled as organic, assume they are GM and avoid. Also avoid oil substitutes like Olestra (sometimes used in chips to lower fat levels) and foods labeled as “fat-free” which often really means “high sugar”.
Because fat, from any source, is a very calorie dense nutrient (9 calories/gram compared to 4 calories/gram for carbs and proteins), we need less of these concentrated foods compared to healthy carbs and proteins. Nonetheless, we do need some for optimal health of our nervous system, for hormone production, and for good brain health. Many of our health problems stem from too large a quantity of poor quality fats. Excess fat makes our blood thick and sticky, slowing circulation and allowing red blood cells to stick together in clumps that don’t allow for good transfer of oxygen throughout the body. Excess fat in the blood also depresses the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections and disease.
Most of us get way too much fat in visible fats, things like margarine, butter, and shortenings. But there is a lot of hidden fat in nut butters and animal products, including lean cuts of meat.
Most people should aim for small quantities of any refined oil in the diet and focus on getting fat from the whole food sources where the oils come packaged with phytonutrients, fiber, and vitamins (especially A,D,E,and K) and minerals. If you struggle with controlling blood sugars, one of the most effective ways to deal with that is eliminate free and visible oils and get all your fats from small quantities of whole nuts, seeds, and fatty foods like avocados, fresh coconut, and olives. Most research suggests that we only need about 15% of our calories to come from fat. Using a macro nutrient calculator app like My Fitness Pal is a good way to figure out how much you are getting on a regular basis.
Criteria for Use
When trying to decide what kind of fat to use think about whether you plan to heat it or not. For cold foods, flaxseed oil or ground seed sprinkle is a great choice. For foods that will be heated, you will want to pick an oil that is more stable at high heat and has a high smoke point. High temperature Safflower oil and coconut oil work well for these uses.
Other good sources of healthy fats are found in foods such as:
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Macadamia nuts
- Cashew nuts
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flax seeds
In many recipes you can actually replace oils with ground up nuts or nut butters which greatly improves nutrient density.
The good news is that a diet balanced with healthy fats will prevent many Western-type diseases and help to actually reverse coronary heart disease and most adult diabetes. But wait, there’s more! You can also eat a higher volume of food and lose weight too! So keep moving on your personal journey to enjoying the awesome benefits of optimal health.