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Vegan Fats 101: What Are They? Do Vegans Need Them?

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Staring at the grocery store aisles and wondering: do I need to add fat sources to my cart as a vegan?

Which ones should I have on my radar, and what can I avoid?

Don’t skip over this article if this is you! Dietitian Christine discusses what vegans should know about plant based fats – so you can feel more confident about practicing your values as a vegan.

Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Talk to your doctor before starting new supplements or making major dietary changes. See our Disclaimers for more details.

*Consumer Notice: This post contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner : (affiliate link)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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What Are Fats Actually? Do Vegans Need Them?

Great question! Dietary fat is a macronutrient (protein and carbohydrates make up the other macronutrients). Calories come from all three.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (DGA) lists the following macronutrient breakdown by percentage of total calories per day for non pregnant/non breastfeeding adults (ages 19+ years) based on the AMDR (Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range):

  • Protein: 10-35%
  • Carbohydrates: 45-65%
  • Lipids (another term for fats): 20-35%

As you can see, we need some fat in a healthy diet for several reasons including:

  • To aid in the absorption of certain fat soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E and K).
  • Provides calories, and may contribute to satiety
  • Certain fats are important for brain function and our cell membranes.
  • May provide other essential vitamins and minerals (depending on the source).

So contrary to what you might have read about vegan diets, a healthy one does include some fat (even if your goal is weight loss), for the reasons listed above and possibly more!

We went over why fats are important, but perhaps you are now asking, which ones? Can I get away with eating just any fat source? Lets discuss that next…

Types of Fat

Some fats are considered essential meaning, we must consume enough for healthy functioning, as the body does not produce enough on its own.

Here is a brief breakdown of what is often considered the four main types of fat (within each category, there are several different types of fatty acids):

  • Polyunsaturated fat: Poly (meaning many) unsaturated carbon bonds on the fat molecule. Of these fats, there are two that have been identified as essential: omega-6 (found in foods like nuts and seeds) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods like fish and ground flaxseeds). These are typically considered as healthier fats.
  • Monounsaturated fat: Mono (meaning one) unsaturated carbon bond on the fat molecule. Examples with abundant types of this fat include avocados and olive oil. Like polyunsaturated, they are often considered as healthier than trans or saturated fats.
  • Saturated fat: Fatty acid chains (saturated) with single bonds. These fats are found in full fat dairy and meat products, and also in tropical oils, such as palm and coconut oil. The 2020-2025 DGA’s suggest s they be limited to less than 10% of total calories per day- to be replaced with unsaturated fats (favoring polyunsaturated fats).
  • Trans Fat: Typically, a man- made fat that is produced through hydrogenation, but also can occur naturally in animal products like dairy and meat. The 2020-2025 DGA’s suggests these fats to avoided as much as possible without having a negative effect on a nutritionally adequate diet.

As you probably guessed, not all fats are created equal! Some are healthier than others, and some are better off avoided all together. We’ll go into a bit more detail about this by talking about healthy and not so healthy fats.

Healthy Fats

First things first: as previously mentioned, polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are considered essential. This means we must get them via diet as our body can not manufacture enough.

But why should we consume enough?

Well, these PUFA’s have an important role in the structure of our cell membranes, functioning of the central nervous system, and may provide additional health benefits.

Of the omega 3 fatty acids, we currently only have an AI (adequate intake) for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which you can find here. Some of the highest plant based sources include ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and English walnuts.

DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) a omega 3 fatty acid in particular, is also very concentrated in the retina which affects vision, and may provide other benefits as well. Check out our article about going fishless to learn more about DHA.

Less Than Healthy Fats

In general, a trans fats should be avoided as far as possible (as long as the diet is nutritionally sound without it). Partially Hydrogenated oils (artificial trans fat) are not recognized as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status by the FDA as of 2015.

Trans fats have been shown to raise levels of the bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood which could increase heart disease risk.

Now, its important to note that some trans fat may be present even if the nutrition facts panel says “0 grams trans fat.” This is allowed in the US if a serving contains under 0.5 grams of trans fat.

However, some of us eat more than a serving! And other sources of trans fat in the diet can certainly add up. That’s why we suggest looking at the ingredients list as well.

If you see “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” oils listed, know that trans fat is/may be present.

These ingredients might be more likely in the following foods (of course, double check the ingredients list):

  • Pastries
  • Baked goods
  • Microwaveable popcorn
  • Chocolate
  • Candy

Alright, so you may be hard pressed to find a health professional who recommends hydrogenated oils, but what about saturated fat?

Lets talk about that next…

Saturated Fats – It’s Complicated, Or Is It?

Talk around saturated fat has significantly changed in the recent years!

Generally, it was something most people assumed should be avoided to reduce the risk of heart disease. But now it seems like popular media has a different prospective. Is butter really back?

First its important to remember that there are a variety of factors that contribute to heart disease. Too much saturated fat may be one factor.

In general, it’s important to view saturated fat in light of what you are replacing it with.

To illustrate this, lets look at what one study analyzing 2 large cohort studies. This study suggests that replacing saturated with unsaturated fat (in particular PUFAs) and/ what they described as “high quality carbohydrates (such as whole grains) or may be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Finally, some types of saturated fats may be worse than others in terms of heart disease risk. For example, stearic acid (found in cocoa butter, which is used in making chocolate for instance) may have a neutral affect on LDL (the “bad” type of cholesterol) when compared to other types of saturated fats according to some research.

However, most foods are not made up of just one type of fat- including chocolate! That chocolate bar could also contain less healthy types of saturated fat, and even trans fat.

Another huge limiting factor is that LDL is not the only risk factor for heart disease. Plus, other potential health consequences of all saturated fat should be explored with further research.

How does this apply to you as a vegan who does not consume animal products where a lot of the top sources of saturated fat come from (such as full fat dairy)?

Consider what you are replacing saturated fat with. In general, substituting unsaturated fats, and whole grains, may be more healthier choice for reducing heart disease risk.

Vegan Fat Sources

What are some examples of plant based fats? I am so glad you asked!

Keep reading for list, along with nutritional highlights of each one!

FYI: This is not a comprehensive list of all vegan fat sources. Fat content are approximates rounded up and based on information provided at FoodData Central. Check the nutrition facts label for fat content.

It’s also important to keep in mind that most foods contain some amount of fat. We are just listing the vegan sources that are particularly concentrated in fat below. We are not claiming that all of the foods listed below are healthy.

Nuts and Nut Butters

Picture of Walnuts
  • Nutrition Highlights: Nuts are often touted as one of the most healthy fats you can consume! There is a good deal of research to support the benefits of nuts consumption including their antioxidant activity, and potential to impact certain health related conditions.
    As mentioned before, walnuts also are unique in that they provide a higher amount of ALA in comparison to other common nuts.

Seeds and Seed Butters

  • Nutrition Highlights: Nutritional content will depend on the type of seed. As mentioned earlier, those notable in the essential omega 3 fatty acid (ALA) include ground flaxseeds, and chia seeds.

Avocado

  • Nutrition Highlights: In addition to the plethora of monounsaturated fat, avocadoes also contain lots of Nutrition: Avocados provide lots of fiber and potassium. These are two nutrients of public health concern per the 2020-2025 DGAs.

Olives

  • Nutritional Highlights: This fruit boosts a hefty dose of monounsaturated fat. Watching your sodium intake? Be aware that olives are often packaged in sodium laden brine-so keep your serving/total dietary intake in mind.

Tofu (Firmer Varieties in Particular)

Picture of tofu egg salad on with a leaf of romaine lettuce on bread
  • Nutritional Highlights: Tofu contains a wide variety of nutrients that may be more tricky for some on a vegan diet. They include choline, lysine (an amino acid), and calcium (when prepared with calcium salts-check the label).

Oils

  • Nutritional Highlights: Oils typically contain about the same calories per tablespoon, but their fat profiles vary widely! For example, coconut oil contains more saturated fat than olive oil, while flaxseed oil is notable for it’s ALA fat content.

Coconut

  • Nutritional Highlights: Saturated fat makes up most of this nuts lipid profile. Coconut “meat” also contains a decent amount of important dietary components like selenium and fiber.

Chocolate

  • Nutritional Highlights: Sure, vegan dark chocolate contains flavonoids (an antioxidant) magnesium, and iron. But be aware does contain a large amount of saturated fat (and sometimes sugar). Find out more about what you should know about chocolate as a vegan in our article here!

Currently I am really enjoying Beyond Good’s Salted Caramel organic vegan chocolate as a treat! (insert picture of me with said chocolate):

Picture of Christine with some Beyond Good Chocolate

It has little chunks of vegan caramel that’s not goopy (not a fan of the goopy caramel, anyone else?)

Check it out here! (affiliate link* (As a reminder, this means that if you click on the link and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you)):

Cacao Nibs

  • Nutritional Highlights: Take a cocoa bean, crush it up into small pieces, and you’ve got cacao nibs! They come with a decent dose of plant based fiber, magnesium and antioxidants. Be aware that about half of the total fat content is saturated.

Vegan Foods That Imitate Other Non Vegan Food

Picture of Daiya Brand Cheese- Pepper Jack shreds
  • Fat Content: Widely variable depending on the product.
  • Nutritional Highlights: Depending on the product, nutrients might be added, such as the addition of calcium to certain vegan yogurts. Check the label (and while your at it, take a look at the fat profile).

In Summary: Vegan Fats

There are plenty of ways to get meet your essential fat needs as a vegan!

As a part of learning about vegan nutrition, familiarize yourself with the sources of essential fat alpha-linolenic acid (such as ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts), and make sure you are getting an adequate amount.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all fats are created equal. In general, trans fats should be avoided. Also, many health professionals agree that saturated fats should be reduced/ replaced with healthier alternatives (like unsaturated fats or whole grains) in the context of a healthy diet.

If you have any questions about your fat needs, reach out to your health care provider.

We hope this article helped to clear up some confusion about vegan fat sources! Let us know what your favorite recipes are using healthy fats in the comments below!
If you would like to learn more about keeping things plant based, why not explore our blog? We discuss other topics like High Calorie Vegan Food and Dietitian Selected Plant Based Diet Books.
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