The enemy of the health conscious, or a group of essential nutrients? When it comes to discovering the truth behind all the media speculation, health scares and food industry advertisements, Charlotte Willis shows us how nutritional science can help us trim the fat!
Despite being clouded by such a murky reputation, the truth is that we all need to consume fats to function properly, so much so that every single cell in your body includes a notable proportion of fat. Not only do fats help to regulate our body temperature, give protection to our vital organs, transport fat-soluble vitamins (such as vitamin A and vitamin D) to our tissues, help us regulate our hormones and also provide us with a greater store of energy, but fats further contribute to essential operational and structural components in the brain and nervous system. This makes fat an important component to any healthy diet and lifestyle – and with vegans it’s no different.
Not all fats were created equal
Fats come in a variety of different chemical forms, each with different nutritional values to our health. There is plenty of good news however, as an average vegan diet is naturally much lower in fat than those of our carnivorous and vegetarian friends. Vegan diets have a further health-boosting benefit of being free-from cholesterol, which is useful in aiding a healthy heart function and circulation. However, it can be hard to know just what type of fats we all should be consuming more of, and indeed less of, in our diets. Simply grouping fats into their categories makes it easier to get the balance right and fuel our bodies with the right types of fat – ‘good fats’.
These types of fats have been linked to illnesses including hypotension, heart disease and diabetes. They are primarily modified fats used by the food industry to improve the sensory quality of products.
- Where? Found hiding in fast food, deep-fried foods, hydrogenated oils, some plant-based spreads and ready-made baked goods.
- Advice This type of fat is best avoided where possible. If you’re a fast-food junkie, try baking your own pizza or creating the ultimate veggie-burger at home using oils such as olive or groundnut.
There are very few sources of saturated fats in the vegan diet. These fats are solid at room temperature and are primarily found in animal products and meat.
- Where? Vegan sources of saturated fats include coconut and palm oils. Coconut oil can be described as a super oil; it is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, helping lower cholesterol and has also been shown to boost fat metabolism, however research behind such health claims is ongoing.
- Advice Read nutritional labels for products containing palm oils and use raw and cold-pressed coconut oil where possible.
These are certified heart-healthy fats that help to reduce cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, while helping to balance blood glucose levels.
- Where? Mono-unsaturated fats are found in olives, avocados, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds in both the whole food and pressed oils.
- Advice – Increasing the amount of mono-unsaturated fats in your diet can have a big impact on your health – opt for a seeded loaf of bread, sprinkle seeds over your breakfast, or simply drizzle oil over a salad for a nutritious kick.
Poly-Unsaturated Fats – Essential Fatty Acids
Poly-unsaturated fats include a group of fatty acids that can’t be manufactured by the body. Key to maintaining healthy skin, hormones, brain functioning and controlling inflammation, these poly-unsaturated Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids must be sourced from our diets.
- Omega 3 Also known as alpha-linoleic acid. Vegan sources include milled flax and hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, tofu, kale, spinach and even parsley. Contrary to popular belief, Omega 3 is not just sourced from fish oils – in fact there is just under 2000mg more Omega 3 in flaxseed oil than in salmon oil.
- Omega 6 Also known as linoleic acid. Safflower and sunflower oils and seeds are among the highest known sources, with wheat germ, walnuts and pine nuts also boasting a rich amount of Omega 6.
- Advice Balance is key. Try to incorporate three times more Omega 3 food sources than Omega 6 in your diet to maintain the correct ratio of fats. One easy way of achieving this is to swap your cooking oil from sunflower to flaxseed oil. Try cutting back on convenience and fried foods that often use sunflower oil.
Shedding the pounds?
Providing 9 Kcal/g, fats are the most energy-dense food in the diet – making them the target of choice for the weight-loss industry. But don’t be fooled into thinking ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’ products are nutritious or healthy, as they are likely to contain higher levels of sugar and salt in an attempt to substitute for fats. When we eat fats, they also promote a feeling of satiety and ‘fullness’ after a meal as the process of digestion takes longer.
So by combining moderate amounts of healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats alongside regular exercise, you’re more likely to achieve a sustainable and realistic weight loss – take that, New Year’s resolution!
Are you getting enough?
Government recommendations state that the total amount of fat in the diet should not exceed 35 per cent of our total energy consumption – a tricky figure in practical terms, unless you meticulously track your every mouthful. The best advice is to keep in mind that the average person should consume 70g (female) and 95g (male) of healthful fats per day, including a variety of wholefood sources, while limiting those which are processed and saturated for optimum health and nutrition. Reaching these targets is easily attainable just by making a few additions to your diet. Try adding 4 tbsp ground flaxseed to your breakfast meal (12g of fat), add ½ an avocado to your salad (contains 12g of delicious healthy fats), snack on a handful of almonds (provides 14g), tofu and tempeh each contain 7g of fat per ½ block, while 1 tbsp olive oil to cook with adds 13g of heart-healthy omega 3 to a meal. You see, there are many simple ways of getting the right fats into your body, while not sacrificing on taste.
Simple ways to incorporate healthy fats into your diet
- Chia seeds – Rich in calcium, protein and Omega 3 – simply soak these seeds overnight in a ratio of 1 cup of milk to ¼ cup seeds to make a healthy breakfast or pudding pot, or use as a super-food thickener in smoothies and shakes.
- Flaxseed – Milled flaxseed is such a simple way to incorporate Omega 3 into baking. Use a ratio of 1 tbsp milled flax to 3 tbsp water as an egg replacer in pancakes and baked goods.
- Edamame pate – Mash cooked soya beans, mint leaves, olive oil and chilli for a simple fat-boosting alternative to hummus.
- Secret avocado pudding – Blend ½ an avocado with vanilla extract, almond milk, cocoa powder and a banana for a healthy pudding in seconds. Is anything more diverse than an avocado!?
- Go nuts! – Snacking on a handful of nuts mid-afternoon will boost your vitamin and mineral intake and provide a hefty amount of healthy fibre and fats. Try food-processing seeds and nuts with dates or raisins to make your own sugar-free energy bars.
- Dress up – Ditch the store-bought bottles and create your own salad dressings using cold-pressed oils. Tahini (sesame paste) and balsamic vinegar with lemon and parsley is a personal obsession.
- Fat fact – Sacha Inchini seeds are the highest source of Omega 3 on earth – rich in fibre and vitamin E they truly are a superfood!