We hear the word ‘fat’ and instantly cringe, yet it’s time to turn the image of this incredibly important nutrient around. Our history has pegged dietary fat as a criminal agent that increases cholesterol and causes arterial blockage, both of which often lead to atherosclerosis. Yet, recent studies reveal that fat may not be the culprit of these serious health conditions and, in fact, may be a key ingredient to overall health, weight management, and increased athletic performance. Let’s unravel the mystery and discover the true facts about dietary fat starting with the basics: what is fat, where does it come from, and what is its relationship to exercise.
101 on Dietary Fat
To begin, there is a difference between body fat and dietary fat.
Body fat, also referred to as adipose tissue, is the connective tissue of the body that stores energy and nutrients and insulates the body. Most all mammals have two forms of adipose tissue, white and brown, which is generally found beneath the skin and around the organs. While adipose tissue plays an important role in bodily function and survival, it is very different from dietary fat.
Dietary fat is a macronutrient (nutrients that provide calories or energy) and is absorbed via the foods you eat. Fat not only provides energy, it also helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. There are four types of dietary fats including saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and trans fats. While polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and low levels of saturated fats have positive effects on the body, trans fats (unnaturally processed fats) are harmful.
Positive-Effect Dietary Fat
Monounsaturated fat is found in extra-virgin olive oil, nuts such as peanuts, almonds, and pecans, avocados, and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame. This healthy fat has been attributed to a “reduction in triglycerides, body weight, and systolic blood pressure in patients with type II diabetes,” while also increasing healthy HDL cholesterol and reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
Polyunsaturated fat, most commonly known in their Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid forms, are a bit more difficult to get on a plant-based diet. Fish oils are the prime source, yet you can also find polyunsaturated fat in walnuts, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds. Vegetable oils, such as corn, safflower, and soybean, also have a high polyunsaturated fat content, yet recent studies have illuminated the dangers of ingesting vegetable oils due to the unstable nature of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). A balanced diet of both Omega fatty acids has shown a reduction in adipose tissue while increasing lean muscle mass. On top of that, flaxseed has been shown to aid in cardiovascular health.
Last, but not least are saturated fats. A diet high in saturated fats is detrimental, yet moderate consumption of naturally occurring saturated fat can actually be good for you. Saturated fat is found mostly in dairy products and meat, yet, for those on a plant-based diet, it can also be consumed via coconut meat and coconut oil. Naturally consumed saturated fat has been attributed to an increase in HDL cholesterol, reduced weight, and more lean muscle growth.
Negative-Effect Dietary Fat
Trans fats, also called hydrogenated fats, are “unsaturated fats that are processed (to create extra hydrogen bonds) so that they’ll behave like saturate fats.” While processing allows a long shelf life, it also makes these fats incredibly unhealthy for the human body. Trans fats are found in processed products including margarine, frozen meals, deep-fried foods, and even microwave popcorn. It’s recommended to avoid trans fats at all costs.
Exercise and Dietary Fat
The relationship between food and exercise is weighted with years of research. We are continuously looking at how to make exercise more beneficial, efficient, easier, and what we can do to make out bodies use the nutrients we eat in a better way.
When it comes to exercise, many theorize that fat is the ultimate key to unlocking great performance.
The body stores both glucose (sugar) and fat for energy. When you work out, your body will first use up all of the sugar reserves before transitioning into using body fat. Generally, depending on your body composition, this transition happens within 20 minutes of exercise. While there are multiple reasons why fat is a better source of energy than carbohydrates, the most prevalent is energy. Your fat reserves are much larger than your sugar reserves and are able to store 50 times more energy than carbohydrates. This means endurance activities, such as cycling, swimming, and running, will quickly use up your carbohydrate (sugar) reserves before switching over to your fat reserves. If you have a low-fat diet and lack those useful energy reserves, you’ll begin feeling depleted and fatigued much quicker than someone with a high-fat diet.
5 Healthy Plant-Based Fats for Exercise
Now that we understand the positive-effect fats and why they’re so necessarily for not only human bodily functions but also exercise, let’s take a look at how to get those fats into your everyday diet. While those following a strict plant-based diet may have a few more hurdles than meat-eaters, there are plenty of sources of natural fats to choose from!
Creamy Chilled Avocado Soup With Wheatgrass/One Green Planet
This is a must-have staple in any plant-based diet. Avocados are delicious and also happen to be incredibly nutritious. One avocado offers all the fatty nutrients that the human body needs including 165 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, a whopping 2534 mg of Omega-6 fatty acids, 14.7 gram of monounsaturated fat, 2.7 grams of polyunsaturated fats, and 3.2 grams of saturated fats, while completely excluding any trace of those dangerous trans fats. Plus, avocado is a great texture infuser in plant-based recipes such as this Raw Oil-Free Avocado Lime Tart, 4-Ingredient Pistachio Nice Cream, or this Creamy Chilled Avocado Soup With Wheatgrass.
Tamari Walnut Salad With Black Beans/One Green Planet
Sprinkling a variety of nuts into your daily plant-based food diet is not only a nutrient necessity, but is also a great way to add texture, flavor, and keep you feeling full longer. For the highest and most varied fat content, try walnuts (73 grams for 1 cup), peanuts (70 grams for 1 cup), and almonds (47 grams for 1 cup). You can use nuts as a base for nut butter, such as this homemade almond butter recipe, or sprinkled on top of a salad, such as this Tamari Walnut Salad With Black Beans, and even pureed into a cream or crumbled into flour for desserts such as these Chocolate Almond and Thyme Tarts.
No-Knead Nut and Seed Bread/One Green Planet
While seeds aren’t as diverse in recipe use as nuts, they incredibly simple to integrate and there is a broad variety of seeds to choose from. With that said, for the fattest content try incorporating flax seeds (70 grams for 1 cup) and pumpkin seeds (12 grams for 1 cup). Seeds are great to coat bread in, such as this No-Knead Nut and Seed Bread or this simple Oat and Seed Bread or added as a crunchy texture to complement creamy soups and stews such as this Pumpkin Leek Soup.
Olive Oil Tamales/One Green Planet
Choosing the best oil for your kitchen is often a struggle. Some are safe for high heat cooking, others offer more varied nutrition, and then there are preferred flavors. With all that said, extra virgin olive oil generally tops the list. This type of oil is safe at high heats (even though it does lose a little of its nutritional value in the process), it’s delightfully rich and silky, and it’s packed full of wonderful nutrition, especially fats. One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil has a total fat content of 14 grams, which includes 2.2 grams of saturated fat, 1.8 grams of polyunsaturated fat, and 10 grams of monounsaturated fat. Plus, extra virgin olive oil is great raw and drizzled over some kale, infused with flavors such as fresh herbs, as well as a great way to add texture and moisture when cooking, such as these Olive Oil Tamales.
No Bake Mint Cherry Buckwheat Tarts/One Green Planet
Every kitchen that practices plant-based eating generally has a jar of coconut oil sitting on their shelf or tucked away in their pantry. Not only is it one of the only natural plant-based ways to get saturated fat, but it’s an incredibly useful ingredient in vegan desserts, as well as natural beauty products, such as makeup removers, body scrubs, and deodorant. While coconut oil has a high-calorie content (one tablespoon equals about 120 calories), they are all from fat. This means, for one tablespoon of coconut oil, you’re getting around 13.5 grams of fat. While you don’t want to go overboard (one tablespoon of coconut oil is about 17 to 31 percent of your total daily fat allowance), a little bit goes a long way for getting the necessary fat consumption for a healthy body! Plus, coconut oil is one the best ingredients for baking and sweet treats! Try it out in these delicious plant-based dessert recipes: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Brownies, No Bake Mint Cherry Buckwheat Tarts, or these Melt In Your Mouth Peanut Morsels.
Fatty, plant-based foods also have the added convenience of being incredibly diverse ingredients in the vegan and vegetarian world. In order to kick-start a higher fat diet, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
Lead Image: GerDukes