Vegan Nutrition News -- The Skinny on Fat
I don’t know about you, but trying to keep up with what’s healthy — and what’s not —makes my head spin. One day the humble blueberry, a personal favorite, is an innocent, but delicious, seasonal delicacy, and the next it’s a “superfood” that prevents cancer and every other plague to humankind — only to be replaced by the next mysterious and magical food (acai berries, anyone?).
But I am not sure there is any element of the human diet that’s more confusing than fat. At the heart of just about every mainstream diet fad is fat, and many vegetarian doctors recommend restrictive, low-fat diets.
How much fat can we really eat without jeopardizing our health — or should we avoid fat altogether? What kinds of fat are safe? Are there really good and bad fats?
Fats supply the body with energy and improve absorption of some nutrients. Certain fatty acids are also essential nutrients. But it’s also important to know that there are different kinds of fat, and some are more healthful or detrimental than others. The types of fat include:
Saturated: This type of fat is dangerous when consumed in large amounts over a period of time. It’s generally most prevalent in animal products. But coconut oil, a vegan fat, contains a high amount of saturated fat -- although the type of saturated fat in coconuts appears to be less harmful that saturated fat from animals.
Monounsaturated: Some evidence suggests these fats reduce the risk of heart disease and they may also be useful in managing diabetes. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocadoes and nut oils.
Polyunsaturated: Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces blood cholesterol levels. The two essential fatty acids are both polyunsaturated. One of them — an omega-3 fat — may lower risk of chronic diseases. Some vegan examples of polyunsaturated fats include safflower oil, grapeseed oil, algae, leafy greens, sunflower, hempseed and flaxseed oil, and various nuts, such as walnuts.
Trans-fats: Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, these fats are almost always artificially produced from other fats, and are universally considered dangerous. These are often included in processed margarines, fried foods and highly processed food items. It’s best to avoid them altogether.
Because I am not a nutritionist or dietitian, I contacted Virginia Messina — a registered dietitian with a masters degree in public health, who’s widely considered to be one of the foremost experts on vegan diets. Messina co-authored two recent position statements by the American Dietetic Association on vegetarian diets.
Messina ’s positions on fat in the diet are rooted in science, not hype or hyperbole. And if you’re dying to know whether she thinks we should all live a fat-free lifestyle, you can breathe a sigh of relief: “The evidence suggests that eating some higher-fat plant foods is perfectly compatible with good health,” she says. That’s great news for someone like myself — a person who not only enjoys, but doesn’t know how to live without, a little plant fat. What would life be without olive oil and avocadoes?
With regard to the ultra low-fat diets, Messina says that the reason they work for some people — and clearly there is evidence that they do — is complicated. For one thing, often the people that follow them are highly motivated to reach a specific weight goal. Messina explains:
The research does show that programs that include very low-fat vegan (or near-vegan) diets help some people who have serious health problems. But there is no evidence that this is due to low total fat content of these diets. The reductions in blood cholesterol levels are mostly explained by reduced saturated fat intake and weight loss, both of which have powerful effects on blood cholesterol levels. It’s not at all clear that eliminating all fats from the diet is necessary, because unsaturated fats don’t raise blood cholesterol. And for some people — those with low levels of HDL-cholesterol (that’s the good cholesterol) and high levels of triglycerides—eating less carbohydrates and more unsaturated fat can actually be beneficial.
From a culinary perspective, anyone who enjoys cooking and food knows intimately the joys of fat. Fat carries heat and flavor to food; it adds body, and provides a sense of fullness when consumed; it assists with melding flavors together during the cooking process. As a person who enjoys baking, that’s the aspect of fat I’ve mostly paid attention to: the alchemy that occurs when the proper ratio of flours, sugar and fat come together to create something amazing.
A few years ago, when a close family member suffered a heart attack, I got curious about low-fat baking — using substitutions like apple sauce and mashed banana in place of oil. I actually got to the point where I was good at producing something delicious where the amount of fat was reduced significantly; but I never learned to embrace the completely fat-free baked goods. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to.
I asked Messina about moderation, and what that ultimately means. Surely, there’s a number we should strive toward. Messina offers:
If there is some ideal level of plant fat in the diet — not too much, but also not too little — we don’t know what it is. There are very knowledgeable nutrition experts who think that fat intakes well over 30% of calories can be perfectly healthful as long as it’s the right kind of fat. At least one study has shown good health outcomes with a vegan diet that was more than 40% fat. But other research suggests that very high fat meals can be harmful to health. While I think that the type of fat matters more than the amount, that’s really only true up to a point. I personally aim for around 20 to 25% of calories from fat. It’s probably fine to go a little lower or higher than that.
So, what happened to good, old calorie counting? Messina says calories still count. Keeping a watch on them might be the best method for controlling weight. Messina mentioned that a recent study indicated that all diet plans brought results as long as total calories were controlled.
Finally, I asked Messina for some succinct advice: How can we be healthy, eat a little fat and enjoy life — all while eating a delicious, varied vegan diet? The answer:
We don’t have the exact prescription for the perfect health-promoting lifestyle. Evidence suggests that you can do a lot to protect your health by exercising, maintaining an ideal weight (not too bulky and not too skinny), and eating lots and lots of whole, unprocessed plant foods.
But there isn’t much evidence that we need to be obsessive about every single food choice in order to be healthy. It’s fine to use small amounts of oils, processed foods, and even occasional decadent treats. So I would say eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains and small servings of nuts and seeds (an ounce or two a day). Take a vitamin B12 supplement, and use fortified foods if necessary to meet calcium and vitamin D needs. Limit sweets, processed snack foods, processed meat analogs, alcohol and caffeine — but you don’t need to give these things up entirely.
Some people who are working to get bad health habits under control or are trying to lose weight find it easier to get started by eliminating all discretionary calories — sweets, alcohol, white flour products — from their diet. It can help a lot with motivation. But in terms of what responsible vegan educators recommend as the ideal vegan diet — well, the occasional brownie is not going to hurt your health and it will definitely improve your activism.
Here is a recipe, perfect for the season, from our latest vegan cookbook, The Best of Vegan Cooking. It’s healthy, delicious and contains a little satisfying plant fat. B on appétit!
Cauliflower and Potato-Leek Soup
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound leeks (white and pale green parts), well rinsed and chopped
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled, diced into ½-inch pieces
½ head chopped cauliflower florets
4+ cups vegetable broth
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
4 thin lemon slices, seeded
1 tablespoon very thinly sliced green onion tops
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Add leeks, potatoes, cauliflower and 3 cups broth and ginger. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat; let mixture cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
Using slotted spoon, transfer all solids in saucepan to food processor. Process until very smooth, stopping to scrape down side of work bowl as necessary. With machine running, gradually add liquid in pan to processor. Return soup to saucepan. Bring to simmer, adding remaining broth for desired consistency. Season with salt and stir in lemon juice. Ladle into bowls. Garnish each with lemon slices and green onions if desired.