Why do you need it?

Fat provides you with energy, helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, helps you produce hormones, protects your organs and acts as a shock absorber. Your brain is almost 60 per cent fat and healthy fats called omega-3s are crucial for brain development and function and can even affect your mood. Healthy fats keep you happy, but you shouldn’t eat too much.


Symptoms of deficiency include feeling very thirsty, frequent urination, dry or rough skin, dry hair, dandruff, brittle nails, headaches, stomach-ache, diarrhoea and constipation. Low omega-3 intake is linked to behavioural problems such as hyperactivity-impulsivity, anxiety, temper tantrums, sleep problems and learning difficulties in some children. Low levels of the omega-3 fat DHA have been linked to neurological and behavioural disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Omega-3 fats are important for brain function and low intakes may have a negative effect on behaviour, learning and mood. Most people can get all the essential fats they need from a varied vegan diet including nuts, seeds and oils made from them (eg flaxseed oil is best if you can find it). In most cases, improving your diet will usually reverse any deficiency. You may be able to buy vegan supplements of algal omega-3 (EPA and DHA) online. See more about where to get omega-3s below.

How much do you need?

While many people eat too much fat, others don’t get enough. The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests fat should make up 15 to 30 per cent of your energy intake or total daily calories. Saturated fat, they say, should make up no more than 10 per cent. 

Fat is the most energy dense of all the main nutrients – it contains more than two times as many calories as protein or carbohydrate. That’s why it’s such a good source of energy, but if you eat more than you need, your body will store it to use later, when food is scarce. If food is never scarce, your body size will increase. 

Watch those calories!

  • Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
  • Protein = 4 calories per gram
  • Fat = 9 calories per gram

Plant foods tend to store their fats in seeds (eg nuts, seeds, soya beans and maize) and sometimes in the fleshy layer protecting the seed inside (eg avocados, olives and coconuts).  Find out which fats you need and which ones you don’t below.

Saturated fat. Click to read more.

You don’t need any saturated fat in your diet as your body can make all you need. Eating too much saturated fat can lead to the build-up of cholesterol in your blood which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Saturated fat has 10 times the cholesterol-raising power of the cholesterol found in eggs, cheese, shellfish and meat – especially organ meats such as heart, kidney and liver. Foods high in saturated fat include animal products (meat, eggs and dairy), pies, pastries, processed foods and fatty spreads, coconut oil and palm fat. See below to find out if your food is high in saturated fat.

Is your food high in saturated fat? Click to read more.
Saturated fat
HIGH IN SAT FATmore than 5 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams 
fatty cuts of meatmeat products, including sausages and piesbutter, ghee and lardcheese, especially hard cheesescream, soured cream and ice creamsome savoury snacks, like cheese crackers and some popcornschocolate confectionerycookies, cakes and pastriespalm oil, coconut oil and coconut cream
LOW IN SAT FAT1.5 grams of saturated fat or less per 100 grams
most fruit and vegetables – when choosing canned options, choose varieties with no added sugarpeas, beans and lentils – as long as they are not cooked with added fatswholegrain bread and crispbreads – check the labels because the ingredients varybrown rice – steamed or boiledwholewheat pasta – check the label and avoid egg pastawholegrain breakfast cereals with no added sugar – such as oats and some packaged varietiesboiled, mashed and jacket potatoes – without added fat such as butter or oil
Trans fats. Click to read more.

Also called trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats, trans fats are very harmful and should be avoided. Low levels of trans fats are found in dairy products, lamb and beef fat. Larger amounts can often be found in processed foods. An industrial process known as hydrogenation is sometimes used to convert liquid vegetable oils into solid or semi-solid fats called hydrogenated fat – which is essentially just a different term for trans-fat. This type of fat is cheap to produce and can extend the shelf life of processed foods which is why it is sometimes found in cookies, cakes, pastries etc.

Trans fats increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by raising harmful cholesterol levels. They are even worse than saturated fats – think of processed foods like crackers and crisps and fast food items such as chips. Look for the term ‘hydrogenated’ on labels of processed foods and avoid it whenever possible.

Try to replace saturated and trans fats with polyunsaturated fats by doing the following:

  • Avoid meat, fish, eggs and dairy
  • Steam or boil foods instead of frying them
  • Replace butter, lard and ghee with oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soya bean, canola (rapeseed), corn, safflower and sunflower oils
  • Limit how much pre-packed, processed foods, eg doughnuts, cakes, pies, cookies, biscuits and wafers you eat
Unsaturated fats. Click to read more.

These are considered much healthier than saturated and trans fats as they can help reduce LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, like butter for example, while unsaturated ones, like olive oil, are more likely to be fluid. This is important because it affects how these fats behave in your body. 

There are two main types of unsaturated fats:

  • Monounsaturated fat: found in olive oil, avocados, nuts (such as almonds, cashews, and peanuts) and seeds (such as sesame (simsim) seeds and pumpkin seeds).
  • Polyunsaturated fats: are further categorised into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Sources of polyunsaturated fats include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, soya bean oil, corn oil and sunflower oil.

Replacing saturated and trans fats in the diet with unsaturated fats can help lower your risk of heart disease. However, it’s important to remember that all fats are high in calories, so moderation is key to maintaining a healthy diet.

Where to find healthy fats

Fat intake varies widely between people and communities in Uganda. In some rural areas, where diets are based on locally grown staples such as maize, millet, cassava and beans, fat intake tends to be much lower than it is in urban areas where people have access to a wider variety of foods.The main sources of healthy fats in Uganda include foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, vegetable oils and pulses. Meat, butter, whole milk, cream, cheese, lard, many baked goods and palm oil are packed with saturated fat and should be avoided.

  • Nuts and seeds: The fat content in nuts and seeds is relatively high but in most, it’s mainly unsaturated fat: either polyunsaturated fats in walnuts and pine nuts, or monounsaturated fats in almonds, pistachios, pecans and hazelnuts, for example. Brazil nuts, cashews and macadamia nuts are higher in saturated fat but still contain healthy fibre unlike animal foods. Pumpkin, sunflower and sesame (simsim) seeds also provide an excellent source of healthy fats. Nuts and seeds can be enjoyed as a snack or added to soups, stews and salads for flavour and texture or used to make spreads. 
  • Peanuts (groundnuts): Widely consumed in Uganda, peanuts are a good source of healthy fats and can be roasted and eaten as snacks, ground into peanut butter, or used in sauces, stews and other dishes.
  • Avocados: Much fattier than other types of fruit, about three-quarters of avocado’s energy comes from fat and most of it is monounsaturated oleic acid – the same fat you find in olives and olive oil. It’s not an essential fat but is a healthy one as it can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Avocados can be eaten sliced or mashed or added to salads. In recent years, they have become a popular breakfast food served mashed on toast.
  • Vegetable oils: Healthy vegetable oils such as olive oil, sunflower oil and soya bean oil can be used for cooking, salad dressings and marinades. These oils are rich in unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are beneficial for heart health. However, they are high in calories and so should be used moderately.
  • Pulses: Popular varieties include yellow, green and split peas, red kidney beans, black beans, mung beans, cowpeas (black-eyed peas) and red ‘masoor’ lentils. They are a versatile staple in Uganda and are used in curries, soups, stews, salads or simply boiled and served as a side dish. Although low in fat, the fat they do contain is the healthier polyunsaturated type. 
  • Plant-based milk: Swap cow’s milk for fortified soya milk, rice milk or almond milk as a source of calcium and vitamin D along with healthy fats. 

A word on coconut 

Coconut and coconut products (eg coconut oil, milk and shredded coconut) are rich in saturated fat, but not all saturated fats are the same and the ones in coconut may offer some health benefits compared, for example, to those found in butter or beef. So, while it can be used in cooking, baking, or added to curries and desserts, coconut oil should only be used in moderation.  


While oily fish are probably most well-known for omega-3s they are also often contaminated with toxic pollutants found in all the world’s oceans. Fortunately, there are lots of healthier plant-based sources of omega-3 fats available:

  • Flaxseeds (linseeds) are one of the richest plant-based sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Ground flaxseeds are best because whole seeds can pass straight through you. Flaxseed oil is best used cold in salad dressings or added to smoothies – store it in a dark cool place to preserve its nutritional value. 
  • Walnuts contain a significant amount of ALA. Add a small handful (28 grams) to salads or porridge or eat as a snack regularly. 
  • Chia seeds are another excellent source of ALA and can be sprinkled over cereals, vegan yoghurt, salads, added to smoothies or used to make chia pudding.
  • Hemp seeds are rich in omega-3s and are a good source of protein and other nutrients. They can be sprinkled on salads or vegan yoghurt, added to smoothies or used in baking.
  • Pumpkin seeds are a source of ALA and can be eaten as a snack or added to salads or cereals.
  • Soya beans and products such as tofu, tempeh and soya milk contain omega-3s. Although not widely available in Uganda, if you can find them, including these foods in your diet can contribute to your omega-3 intake while providing protein and other nutrients.
  • Leafy green vegetables are of course a low-fat food but some, such as spinach, kale and purslane, contain small amounts of ALA, so including these greens regularly into your diet can contribute to your overall omega-3 intake.

You should be able to get all the omega-3 fats you need from eating a healthy, varied, vegan diet including ground flaxseed (linseed) or hempseed and their oils for cold food, rapeseed oil for cooking and some nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds as a healthy addition to meals.

Omega-3 supplements

Fish get omega-3s from eating algae – wild food naturally rich in omega-3s. However, all the world’s oceans are contaminated with toxic pollutants that often end up in the fish and their oils. So, some people may consider taking a vegan omega-3 supplement produced from algae grown in controlled conditions away from the sea. The advantage of these over fish is that it doesn’t impact marine ecosystems or deprive fish of their natural food. By avoiding fish and fish oils you’ll be doing yourself a favour and the environment too, whilst getting the safest, toxin-free omega-3 fats.