Plant-based fats are having a renaissance in the health and nutrition world. This is for good reason! While fat has been demonized for years due to propaganda-style marketing being driven by big food and money, the rebirth of freshly reported research, data, and education has given this essential macronutrient new life.
With that said, it’s important to clarify healthy fat versus unhealthy fat. Yes, there is a difference and it’s monumentally important!
When we talk about healthy fat, we’re talking about monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and appropriate amounts of that dreaded saturated fat. If fat is consumed appropriately — on a healthy and balanced plant-based diet — not only can fat boost the health of your brain, liver, heart, bones, and immune system, but it acts as a fat burner to help with weight loss and healthy weight management.
Before you pick up that container of coconut oil or that packet of MCT oil for your coffee, it’s important to understand the mechanisms that give fat such great health benefits and what can make it lethal. Many people are venturing down the high-fat diet without knowing the dangers of not consuming a high-fat diet correctly. For instance, those that are consuming high levels of fat, but are also consuming high levels of refined carbs and sugar (basically, processed and ultra-processed foods) will probably experience the opposite side effects. It’s all about the science of how your body utilizes and stores essential macronutrients for energy.
What is Fat Burning?
If you type “fat-burning” into google, you’ll get a broad range of information that isn’t quite useful. This is mostly due to the infancy of fat-burning research in regards to the actual consumption of fat. So, where do you start? Start with what fat does for your body. Energy!
Why Glucose is Essential for the Body, but Not Preferred for Energy
That bowl of carb-heavy pasta that you swear by before a day of heavy excursion may be balancing your energy on a double-edged sword. Carbs offer a source of glucose — basically sugar — that your body will store and eventually use for energy. When you consume that delicious pasta “enzymes will start the breakdown process with help from the pancreas.” Your pancreas lends a crucial hand by producing a hormone called insulin, which is essential for dealing with rising blood sugar levels caused by glucose.
It’s important to understand that this is a completely normal process… up to a point. Problems begin to arise when we overconsume glucose of any kind (this can be in carb form or simple straight sugar form), causing blood sugar levels to constantly be in flux. Combine glucose overconsumption with physical inactivity or not enough physical activity to burn the amounts of glucose off — as well as a poor diet — and you’ve got a big problem that can lead to diabetes and even cardiovascular issues.
Why Healthy Fats Are a Better Source of Energy
Glucose provides a necessary form of energy for the body, but it’s also not the most efficient. This is why you experience a sugar crash. On the other hand, fat used as fuel not only provides a longer and steadier form of energy, but it also has the added feature of burning more body — or adipose — fat, when done right.
In one of my previous One Green Planet articles entitled Getting Energy from Vegetables, I explained that “there is a hierarchy to the usefulness of all these [glucose, protein, and fat] energy resources. More simply put, there are highly-efficient and highly-inefficient forms of energy.” Here, I was referring to the superiority of fat as a source of fuel for the body.
In that same article, I spoke at length about a pioneer in the healthy fat consumption field, Phill Maffetone. Maffetone — a highly-regarded expert — is a clinician, coach, innovator, and is the founder of MAF. Recently, Maffetone participated in the Metabolic Therapeutics Conference, which introduced some basic concepts and new information regarding healthy fat consumption and fat burning. Here, Maffetone lays out the argument for and findings of a healthy-fat rich diet:
“It’s now being widely accepted that the ultimate fat-burning metabolism is created by eating certain foods while avoiding others. As carbohydrates are reduced and fats increased, the metabolism kicks in to burn more stored body fat for energy, both at rest and during physical activity … Taking it a step further, a very low-carbohydrate eating plan increases fat-burning even more, and also raises ketone production. Ketones are another source of energy, especially for the brain but also the heart and other body parts. Ketones are not only used for energy in the heart, brain and other tissues, but the state of nutritional ketosis may be the ideal approach to prevent most of the common chronic diseases from Alzheimer’s to cancer, and diabetes to heart disease. This healthy nutritional state, which medicine has used for more than 100 years to treat epilepsy, is also thought to successfully treat many types of brain injuries, including Alzheimer’s, along with obesity, Type 1 and 2 diabetes, brain tumors and other cancers.”
Healthy Plant-Based Fats and Safe Consumption Tips
As you become more aware of the positive and negative effects of consuming different fats, it’s important to take note of nutrition profiles and ingredient lists of your favorite foods. You may be surprised by how many healthy fats are naturally present in your favorite plant-based foods. On the other hand, you also may be unpleasantly surprised by the level of sugar and even hidden trans fats in others. In order to best deduce what’s healthy and what you shouldn’t be consuming, here are the healthiest of fats!
Adding Fat and Cutting Sugar
Referring back to the why healthy fats are a better source of energy section, in order for your body to actually use the healthy fats you’re consuming, you need to cut back on the amount of refined carbohydrates and sugar. While fat may be a better form of energy, it’s not first on the hierarchy when it comes to energy use. Glucose, also referred to as sugar, is first up. The human body is programmed to burn glucose before fat. Therefore, if you’re consuming a high level of healthy fat along with a high level of refined carbohydrates (filled with glucose) and sugar, you’re body will refer to that sugar storage and may not even get to burning that healthy fat store.
Phil Maffetone explains it succinctly and simply in a recent article on the theory of fat-burning coffee (known as bulletproof coffee to most), as he explains “refined carbohydrates, including sugar and other high glycemic items, can reduce fat-burning almost immediately … you’ll just be adding more calories to a poor fat-burning body and build fat stores. Likewise, if you have a bowl of cereal, a bagel or other junk food as high-glycemic items impair fat-burning.”
Therefore, it’s incredibly important to regulate glucose and healthy fat intake accordingly. I highly recommend working with a nutritionist, dietitian, wellness coach, or even your primary physician. Not only will these professionals know the proper amounts to get you to that wonderful fat-burning stage, but they will also be incredibly helpful in aiding to reduce carb and sugar intake.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from years of regulating and balancing my nutrition intake, you can’t do it alone!
Monounsaturated fats are labeled due to their chemical makeup. These fats contain “one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, this is also called a double bond.” This means that oils containing monounsaturated fats are “typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled,” such as olive oil. These healthy fats are well-known factors in reducing “bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke,” plus they are also great for developing body’s cells and are a source of antioxidant-rich vitamin E. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocado, and a variety of nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats are very similar to monounsaturated fats. They have the same chemical design — “one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule” — when in oil form they are both typically liquid at room temperature — and they both reduce bad cholesterol, maintain body’s cells, and provide vitamin E. With that said, polyunsaturated fats have a bit of a leg up on monounsaturated fats due to their omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid content. These are fats that your body cannot produce and therefore you have to consume via diet.
You can also find polyunsaturated fats in many of the same foods as monounsaturated fats including avocados, some nuts (such as walnuts) and seeds (such as flax seeds and sunflower seeds), as well as olive oil.
There’s lots of hullabaloo about saturated fat. Some say there’s nothing bad about it, while others recommend steering clear of that fat altogether. Based on lots of research studies, it looks like finding a medium between these controversial opinions may be the key to healthy saturated fat consumption.
Saturated fats can be identified due to their solidness at room temperature, which is a great indicator of their chemical makeup. Saturated fat is “labeled that way due to the fact that saturated ‘refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom,’ in particular ‘the chain of carbon atoms holds as many hydrogen atoms as possible — it’s saturated with hydrogens,’ hence saturated fat.” This type of fat is found in “red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods, cheese, coconut oil, and many commercially prepared baked goods,” as well as a handful of plant-based foods.
When you look at the research regarding saturated fat, it can be incredibly confusing. Up until recently, saturated fat was “demonized during the industrializing of foods, particularly when other types of fat substitutes were being promoted by big food companies (remember margarine?).” Yet, due to recent health revolutions, lipidologists have taken a second look at this fat through various studies.
The results show that saturated fat actually has many benefits when consumed through healthy sources and in healthy amounts. This includes getting your saturated fat intake from plant-based sources such as avocado, coconut products — oil, cream, butter, and meat — extra-virgin olive oil, chia seeds, and even dark chocolate. This also means avoiding saturated fat in unhealthy sources such as animal products and processed foods. These alternate sources will not only provide saturated fats, but they are also high in other unhealthy substances including sugars and volatile vegetable oils.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
While saturated fat should be consumed moderately and from appropriately healthy sources, omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids — fats consumed and not created by the body — should be consciously consumed in a very balanced fashion.
First off, let’s look at Omega-3. It’s important to note that there are eleven types of Omega-3 fatty acids, yet you should really only be concerned with three of them: ALA — alpha-linolenic acid — DHA — docosahexaenoic acid — and EPA — eicosapentaenoic acid. From that point, you can reduce it down further to just DHA and EPA for two reasons: one, ALA is the most common form of omega-3 fatty acid and is either converted into EPA and DHA by your body or store as fat and two, it’s found in lots of plant-based foods such as kale, spinach, soybeans, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed.
On the other hand, both DHA and EPA are found primarily fatty fish, fish oils, and algae, leading to their nickname of “marine omega-3’s.” While DHA and EPA can be formed in the body via plant-based ALA, this is only done in very small amounts. Therefore, if you are on a strict plant-based diet, it’s important to speak with your doctor about the best sources, such as supplements, to get your daily dose of DHA and EPA.
When it comes to balance, you want more omega-3 than omega-6. This should be a naturally occurring balance, except for the invention of processed foods, which are unnaturally high in omega-6 fatty acids. Therefore, watch out for your processed food consumption, stick to a diet high in plant-based and whole foods, and you should find the right balance!
Health Benefits of Healthy Fat Consumption
By now, you know how healthy fat helps burn fat, the types of fat to consume, and now you’re ready to integrate! Not that you need any other persuasion, but healthy fat doesn’t just help burn fat it also has a broad range of health benefits to your body. Fat is an essential macronutrient, meaning it’s essential for various bodily functions, plus it helps with many other processes as well!
Fats aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins — such as A, D, E, and K — as well as “keeps your hair and skin healthy, forms the foundation of your cell membranes, supplies energy, and provides insulation to help regulate your body’s temperature.” Plus, fat is digested more slowly than other macronutrients, meaning you’ll feel satiated longer, which can aid those who are focusing on healthy weight loss.
The list of health benefits doesn’t stop there!
Healthy fat consumption has also been shown to reduce bodily inflammation, “which can help protect against chronic disease and help improve health.” Monounsaturated fat has been shown to “increase good HDL cholesterol, lower triglyceride levels and decrease the risk of heart disease.” Incorporating a variety of high-fat foods can “boost brain function … [and] … promote blood flow to the brain to enhance cognitive function.”
So, let’s get to enjoying plant-based healthy fats!
While some people swear by a spoonful of coconut oil each morning, it’s not the most pleasant way to get those healthy fats into your body. Plant-based diets are wonderfully rich in so many healthy fat sources, from nuts and seeds to avocados to coconut cream. Here are a few creative ways to prepare healthy fat at home!
Source: Raw Nourishing Nutty Creamer
Nuts offer a slew of nutrients including fat. When you make nut milk, these nutrients and fat transfer over into a frothy and delicious beverage that can replace milk for your favorite latte, a bowl of cereal, or to cream up that morning oatmeal.
Almonds, such as in this Almond Milk recipe, are one of the most popular alternative milk options and are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and saturated fat, as well as protein and dietary fiber. Cashews are yet another great choice, such as in this Cashew Milk recipe, offering both omega-3 and omega-6, as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and small amounts of saturated fat. Be aware that cashews are higher in sugar, so you’ll also be consuming more sugar with cashew.
With that said, if you’re looking for a fatty nut champion, look no further than macadamia nut! Macadamia nuts offer a healthy dose of omega-3’s (276 milligrams per cup), omega-6’s (1737 milligrams per cup), monounsaturated fatty acids (78.9 grams per cup), polyunsaturated fatty acids (16.2 grams per cup), and saturated fat (16.2 grams per cup). Plus, they are incredibly rich in dietary fiber (11.5 grams per cup) and protein (36.8 grams per cup). Of course, you don’t have to settle for just one! Try mingling your fatty-nut ingredients such as this Almond-Macadamia Nut Creamer recipe.
Did you know that there is a slew of alternative nutritious and fat-filled coconut products outside of coconut oil? These include coconut butter, coconut cream, and even a (generally) coconut-derived, exclusively fat-filled MCT oil.
Coconut butter is a wonderful, rich plant-based alternative to traditional cow’s milk butter, and can be used to make some of your favorite dairy-free staples such as this Coconut Butter ‘Cream Cheese’ or this not-so-traditional Homemade Cocoa-Coconut Butter.
When it comes to coconut meat, try incorporating shredded coconut. It’s not only easy to use in so many recipes — such as these Coconut Peppermint Balls or this healthy fat-filled Coconut Almond Butter — but dried coconut has a relatively long shelf life. With that said, make sure to avoid added sweeteners by opting for “unsweetened” varieties such as this Bob’s Red Mill Unsweetened Shredded Coconut.
Coconut cream is one of those ingredients seemingly relegated to baking, yet this is one of those wonderfully fat-rich products that can be useful in so many other capacities. Mix it with some seeds to make a dairy-free yogurt option, such as this Coconut Cream with Parsley and Poppy Seeds or whip it up in these unique and delicious Dessert Chips and Strawberry Salsa recipe.
Extra-virgin olive oil is one of those all-encompassing oils. It also happens to be a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is hailed as one of the healthiest, heart-boosting food regimens out there. Integrating this rich and delicious oil into diets has shown a decrease in LDL “bad” cholesterol, as well as a decreased risk of many other health conditions. Keep it out on the table for a quick spritz in the saucepan before sauteeing up veggies or get creative with these Sauteed Avocados. You can use it in baking — such as these Chocolate Olive Oil Cake — drizzle on top of a salad — such as this Brussels Sprouts Salad with Macadamias and Apple — or simply dip some of your favorite raw veggies in!
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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