By now we all know that limiting dietary cholesterol and saturated fat intake is probably a good idea and that loading up on fresh, whole foods and getting your daily exercise will go a long way to protect your heart. So what about all of the other fats? What about creamy avocado and crunchy walnuts and the oh-so-versatile olive oil?
Not All Fats Are Made Equal!
Dietary fats can be categorized in two ways, saturated and unsaturated. As much as I want to gush about the chemistry of fats, I will spare you. Here is an easy way to remember the difference: saturated fats tend to be solid at rooms temperature (think butter), and unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature (such as oils). Unsaturated fats have been linked with heart health benefits while saturated fats have a negative impact on heart health.
Unsaturated fats fall into two categories, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Olive oil and avocados are rich in monounsaturated fat, which can help lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in the blood when it’s used instead of saturated fat. Olive oil is also rich in antioxidants which also protect the heart. Try swapping out avocado for butter on toast; it’s delightful.
Polyunsaturated fats occur in canola oil, nuts, and fish. One of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet has the reputation of being one of the most heart-healthy diets is because it emphasizes unsaturated fat, especially omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. The Mediterranean diet is brimming with colorful whole plant foods as well a generous amount of olive oil and of course the star protein, fish. You typically don’t see much meat, eggs, dairy, and refined foods in a traditional Mediterranean diet. Fish is abundant in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are so cardioprotective.
How to Get Healthy Fats in a Vegan & Plant-Based Diet?
So if vegans don’t eat fish, where do we our long-chain omega-3 essential fatty acids? The same place the fish get them, of course! Algae. There are a variety of algae oil supplements on the market that come in non-gel capsule form, just like fish oil supplements, minus the fishy burps.
How to “Veganize” the Mediterranean diet:
1. Begin with a whole foods, plant-based diet
Fill your plate with a rainbow of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and legumes like beans and lentils.
2. Choose olive and canola oil
Choose olive or canola oil for cooking, baking, and salad dressings. Steer clear of the ambiguous “vegetable oil.”
3. Go nuts
Not literally, but a daily serving of heart-healthy nuts like walnuts or almonds has been associated with lower incidence of heart disease. A serving is 1 ounce (sometimes packages will tell you exactly how many nuts this is, if not or you’re buying in bulk, stick to 1/4-1/3 cup per day).
4. Don’t forget about seeds
Seeds have been having a moment, thanks to the trendiness of flax and chia over the past few years. Good news: both are chock-full of healthy fats, antioxidants, and protein. Aim for two tablespoons per day.
5. Minimize processed food
Processed, refined food is not only devoid of many nutrients, but it often contains sugar and trans-fatty acids which can be detrimental to heart health. Try having fruit for dessert instead of baked goods and if you must have something chocolaty, enjoy a piece of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate (bonus for fair-trade!).
6. Think about taking a supplement
Recommended Vegan Nutrition Reading:
Disclaimer: The information presented here is not to be construed as medical advice or used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease.