What fat sources are vegan-friendly? How much fat do I need? Do I need to avoid oil?
If you’re looking for the answer to any of these questions, you’re in the right place!
In this post we will discuss the health benefits of including fat in the diet, the main types of fats, which sources of fat are vegan, and which are the healthiest choices for a vegan diet.
Let’s dive in!
Why is fat important?
Fat is essential for hormone production, body temperature regulation, absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and providing structure to cells in the body. It also serves as an important source of calories and energy and makes foods flavorful and enjoyable to eat.
The main types of fats
There are three main types of fats: unsaturated fatty acids, saturated fatty acids, and trans fatty acids. Understanding the differences between these types is helpful in identifying vegan fat sources, since saturated fats tend to be found most commonly in animal foods.
Many high fat foods are not 100% unsaturated or 100% saturated; rather, they often contain a combination of different fats. Because of this, high fat foods are often classified by the type of fat they contain the most of.
Unsaturated fats are most commonly found in plant-based foods. They are liquid at room temperature, like most oils.
They are further classified into more specific types of unsaturated fats:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). MUFAs are found in olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, canola oil, high-oleic sunflower and safflower oils, hazelnuts, and peanuts. They are associated with a decreased risk of dying from any cause (1, 2).
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Polyunsaturated fats are found in many nuts, seeds, and oils. There are many different kinds of PUFAs, but two especially important types are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The body can’t create these fats on its own, so it’s essential that we get them from food. Plant-based omega-3 fats are only found in certain foods and the best sources are walnuts, flax seeds and flax seed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, perilla oil (commonly used in Korean dishes), and canola oil. Omega-6 fats are not as rare and are found in many plant oils, nuts, and seeds.
Most of the fat in a vegan diet will naturally be unsaturated, unless you are consuming high amounts of coconut and coconut oil or more processed vegan foods containing coconut or palm oil. Some examples are certain vegan butters and cheeses, or raw desserts made with coconut oil.
Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal-based foods, with a couple exceptions. They are solid at room temperature, like butter and lard.
The two main plant-based sources of saturated fat are coconut/coconut oil and palm oil.
While a high intake of saturated fats was previously believed to strongly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, this has recently been questioned by the scientific community. Still, research shows us that replacing saturated fats specifically with PUFAs can reduce the risk of heart disease (3).
Natural trans fats are present in small amounts in meat and some dairy. Artificial trans fats are oils (unsaturated fats) whose chemical structures have been manipulated through industrial processes so that they are more stable at room temperature.
Artificial trans fats may be present in higher amounts in some fried foods, baked goods, stick margarines, frozen pizza, and cookies. In the past, trans fats were added to these products by food manufacturers in order to extend their shelf life and add flavor.
When added to foods, trans fats are listed in the ingredients list on the food label as “partially hydrogenated” oils.
Nowadays, artificial trans fats added to foods are much less prevalent in the United States since the FDA banned their use in 2015, giving food manufacturers until 2020 to comply (4).
Ultimate list of vegan fats
Now that we’ve discussed the main types of fats, we’ll go over which fats are included in a vegan eating pattern. Vegan fats include:
- Nuts: walnuts, peanuts, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios
- Nut butters: peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, pecan butter
- Seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds poppy seeds, sesame seeds
- Seed butters: tahini, sunflower seed butter
- Tofu (also high in protein)
- Plant oils – olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil
- Chocolate/cacao nibs
Now that we are familiar with which fats are vegan, let’s talk about considerations for health.
Vegan unsaturated fats
Whole food sources (Use most frequently!)
I recommend that people eat whole food sources of fat most frequently. A “whole food” is considered either to be a food that is in its unaltered, natural form or one that has been minimally processed while still containing most of its nutrients.
An example of the former is a peanut, while an example of the latter is peanut butter. Peanut butter contains the whole peanut, but has been processed into a different form. On the other hand, peanut oil would not be considered a whole food because many of the nutrients found in whole peanuts, like the fiber and some vitamins and minerals, have been removed.
Since whole plant foods contain more beneficial nutrients than more processed items like oil, I recommend eating the whole food most frequently.
Whole food sources of vegan unsaturated fats include:
- Avocados. Avocados are a staple of vegan diets, and with good reason! They contain plenty of MUFAs, antioxidants, fiber, and add a beautiful color to many dishes.
- Nuts & nut butters. Versatile and delicious, nuts and nut butters provide healthful fats along with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. A couple nut superstars for vegans include walnuts (high in omega-3 fats) and brazil nuts, which are high in selenium.
- Seeds & seed butters. These are similar in nutrition content to nuts, but can be eaten by most people with nut allergies. Chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds contain omega-3 fats, and sunflower seed butter is readily available as a nut-free spread. Tahini is a sesame seed butter often used in hummus and tahini dressings.
- Olives. Olives are a great source of MUFAs, which isn’t surprising considering they’re where we get olive oil! Be careful not to eat too many if your doctor has you on a low-sodium diet.
- Tofu and other soy foods. While technically not a whole food, tofu contains much of the same nutrients as whole soybeans and is a great source of calcium and protein, making it a valuable addition to a vegan diet. Tofu, edamame, and tempeh have about 5-6 grams of fat per serving, less than the others on this list but worth mentioning.
Oils (Use in smaller amounts)
Oils are also a helpful source of healthy vegan fats. I usually recommend using oils in small amounts when cooking, simply because using a lot of oil can unintentionally add more calories than you need.
They also lack or are lower in nutrients found in whole food sources of fats, particularly fiber and some vitamins and minerals.
On the other hand, people who need to gain weight or avoid losing weight can easily add more calories to their meals with oil.
Wondering how to choose a cooking oil? Many people base this decision on an oil’s smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and turn rancid. But contrary to popular belief, smoke point doesn’t always correlate to how stable an oil is during cooking.
In fact, a study which tested how well multiple oils held up during frying found that extra-virgin olive oil and other unrefined oils rich in MUFAs and antioxidants actually held up the best despite having lower smoke points (5).
Fortunately, all plant-derived oils are vegan. Some of the healthiest vegan oils include:
- Extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent choice since it is unrefined, keeping many of its antioxidants. Despite fears over extra-virgin olive oil going rancid during cooking, it actually holds up well even with high heat due to its high antioxidant and MUFA content.
- Canola oil. Canola oil is a good source of omega-3 fats, but sometimes gets a bad rap due to it being processed with a chemical solvent called hexane. Residual hexane present in canola oil is very low and likely does not pose much of a health concern (6), but if you prefer to avoid it you can purchase expeller-pressed canola oil instead. This type is not processed with chemical solvents.
- Avocado oil. Avocado oil is fairly neutral tasting and is a great source of MUFAs and antioxidants, meaning it will be stable at high cooking temperatures.
- High-oleic sunflower oil. This is much higher in MUFAs than standard sunflower oil, containing at least 80% MUFAs (7). When you see the word “oleic”, think MUFAs! Being high in MUFAs and antioxidants means the oil is more stable when used in cooking.
- High-oleic safflower oil. As with high-oleic sunflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil is also higher in MUFAs than standard safflower oil.
- Flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is the highest plant-based source of omega-3 fats, and is high in antioxidants. It should only be used raw as flaxseed oil loses some of its antioxidants and becomes more rancid when heated (8).
- Walnut oil. Walnut oil is also high in antioxidants and omega-3s, although not quite as high in omega-3s as flaxseed oil. It is also best used raw.
Another note on oil – many in the vegan and plant-based communities recommend completely avoiding all oil and relying only on whole foods for fats. While there is nothing wrong with doing this and it can in fact be a healthy way for most people to eat, I don’t make this blanket recommendation for everyone.
Vegan saturated fats (Eat less often)
- Chocolate/Cacao nibs. While high in antioxidants, dark chocolate also has a high saturated fat content. For this reason, it is best enjoyed in small portions. You can also reap the benefits of dark chocolate with less saturated fat by adding cocoa powder to smoothies and oatmeal.
- Coconut & Coconut oil. Whole coconut can be eaten fresh or dried. While it does contain healthful nutrients like fiber and some minerals, it is higher in saturated fat and therefore isn’t recommended as a go-to cooking oil.
- Palm Oil. Palm oil is very high in saturated fat. While palm-oil is plant based, many vegans avoid it because of its link to deforestation and the destruction of orangutan habitats (9). Fortunately, sustainably sourced palm oil has started to become available for use by food manufacturers.
Trans fats (Avoid!)
Most major health organizations recommend avoiding trans fats, as even small amounts have been shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes (10).
Although partially hydrogenated oils have been banned as a food additive, fried foods are still a potential source of trans fats. This is because refined cooking oils have small amounts (<0.5 grams per Tbsp) of trans fats present as a result of the deodorization process, and the frying process can increase this amount (11).
For this reason, it’s best to eat less fried foods overall and to choose oils with high antioxidant and MUFA content, like extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, and high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils.
How much fat do vegans need?
According to the National Academy of Medicine, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for fat is 20-35% of the total calories you eat in a day.
Using the fact that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, you would get a range of 44-78 grams of fat for the standard example of a 2000 calorie diet.
There are also specific recommendations for omega-3 fats, since these are essential fats required by the body that must be obtained from food. There are 3 main types of omega-3s: ALA (found in plants), DHA, and EPA (found in animal foods). All three have important health benefits.
The recommended amount of ALA omega-3 is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women daily. In addition to this, it is recommended to take a vegan algae-based supplement with 200–300mg of combined DHA/EPA.
If you prefer not to take a DHA/EPA supplement, you’ll need to eat an additional 2g of ALA omega-3s per day (3.6 grams for men and 3.1 grams for women). The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but the process is inefficient, so there’s a need for extra ALA in the diet when not supplementing.
One of the best whole food sources of ALA is walnuts. One handful (about 1 oz) has 2.6 grams of ALA! Flaxseed oil is also a great source, with 7.3 grams per Tbsp.
Some people with health conditions that make it hard to digest fat may need less, such as pancreatitis or gallbladder removal surgery.
Ways to eat more healthy vegan fats
- Add avocado to sandwiches, buddha bowls, smoothies, tacos, and burritos
- Add walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, flaxseed oil, or hemp seeds to oatmeal, overnight oats, smoothies, smoothie bowls, and non-dairy yogurt for a boost of omega-3 fats
- When cooking with oil, use olive oil, canola oil, or high-oleic safflower or sunflower oil
- Create creamy pasta sauces and soups by soaking cashews or sunflower seeds and blending with vegetable broth, non-dairy milk, seasonings, or lemon juice depending on the recipe
- Create a non-dairy substitute for parmesan cheese by pulsing hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, and salt together in a food processor or spice grinder
- Add peanut or almond butter to toast, bagels, and English muffins
- Snack on a handful of nuts with fruit or on non-dairy yogurt
- Make a vegan ground beef alternative with a mixture of walnuts and lentils to use in pasta or tacos
In summary, there are many places to get vegan sources of fats in the diet. Vegan diets are naturally higher in unsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats, which might explain why vegan diets are associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.
For vegans, it is important to proactively eat foods high in omega-3 fats. If not enough foods with ALA omega-3 fats are consumed, you may need to take a vegan algae-based DHA/EPA supplement.
In general, I recommend getting fat in the diet mostly from whole food sources, using oils in smaller amounts, eating foods high in saturated fat less frequently, and avoiding trans fats as much as possible.
If you’re not sure how much fat you need for optimal health, speaking with a registered dietitian can help.