Fat on a Vegan Diet: Literally Everything You Need to Know
When I first transitioned to a vegan diet this particular question perplexed me:
How much fat was I supposed to eat now?
And where should I get my fat from?
By cutting out animal products I had effectively eliminated all fat sources from my diet...
...and searching for answers on Google left me even more confused as to how many grams you actually need on a plant-based diet.
You might be in a similar position.
It's not something you want to get wrong, as eating enough of the right fats is incredibly important for things such as supporting healthy hormonal status, nutrient absorption as well as optimizing physical performance and health.
So in today's post I will explain exactly how much and what kind of fat you need on a vegan diet to optimally build muscle and lose fat, as well as supercharge your health.
Let's get to it.
101 on Fats
Together with carbohydrate and protein, fat is one of the three primary macronutrients that make up the calories we consume.
The role of dietary fat as a nutrient is twofold:
1. As you probably know, fat can be used by the body as an energy source. Both the fat you consume as food and the fat that is already stored in your cells, depending on circumstances.
2. Some of the fatty acids in your diet are classified as essential nutrients and cannot be produced from scratch in the body.
That means your system requires a certain amount of fat every day in order to survive, sustain healthy hormonal status, manufacture structurally sound cell membranes, and support proper nutrient absorption.
And whilst not a vital body function per se, including some fat in your diet makes the food you consume that much more enjoyable.
While that may seem trivial, remember that eating a diet you actually like will make long-term adherence and not falling off the diet-wagon lot easier, which can help you reach your body composition goals faster.
Anyways, I'm getting ahead of myself:
Fats (aka fatty acids aka triglycerides) is not a homogenous group, there's actually quite a bit of variety.
Usually we separate fats into the two broad groups saturated fats and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are found in high proportion in animal products such meat, butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products.
Now saturated fats are not exlusive to animal products - the tropical fat coconut oil actually contains more saturated fat than even butter or lard!
You can usually tell that a fat is saturated if it's solid in room temperature - as is the case with both butter and coconut oil.
Other high-fat plant foods such as nuts, seeds and soy beans also contains some amounts of saturated fats.
So What's The Deal With Saturated Fats?
To say that saturated fat has been the source of some controversy over the last couple decades is an understatement.
I won't get into the nitty-gritty of saturated fat in this post because frankly, if you already eat a vegan diet it's not something you need to care about that much.
A predominantly whole food plant-based diet naturally contains very small amounts of both saturated fat and cholesterol, which is awesome and that's all you need to know really.
(All the cholesterol your body requires is synthesized from scratch by the body!)
I'll just quickly say that despite what you might've heard or read from keto/low-carb gurus and fans, large amounts of dietary saturated fat still is not healthy.
Recommendations from various government panels and organisations such as the American Heart Association to limit saturated fat is not a conspiracy born from an evil collusion between the sugar industry and aliens to sneak sugar into your cereal and mind control you.
Or is it? (just kidding)
These recommendations are based on a huge body of evidence going back many years that suggests it's a rather good idea for reducing your total risk of heart disease and stroke.
There's been tons written about saturated fat and it's effects by individuals more well-read on the subject than me, and if you want to know more Jeff Novick has written an excellent series of articles on the matter.
Here's the bottomline:
If you eat an assortment of whole plant foods you don't need to worry about saturated fats.
If you get 100% of your fats from coconut milk and fake meats then I'd definitely incorporate more variety in your diet.
In contrast to saturated fats, unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant foods.
You can usually tell that an oil is unsaturated if it's liquid in room temperature - as is the case with olive oil and canola oil for example.
To get a better overview of the unsaturated fatty acids we have to look at the two subgroups and their functions and effects on the body:
Monousaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fat, e.g. oleic acid or omega-9, is present in varying amounts in different nuts and seeds such as walnuts, peanuts, avocados, macadamia nuts etc.
Getting your servings of nuts and seeds per week has been associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, so it would seem that monounsaturated fats in the matrix of whole plant foods along with fiber, protein, vitamin E and polyunsaturated fats does you nothing but good (in moderation so you're not getting overweight that is).
You'll also find large amounts of monounsaturated fats in refined plant oils such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and sesame oil.
The term 'oleic' actually means "derived from olives" as olive oil contains more than 70% monounsaturated fats.
As you're probably aware of olive oil has been aggressively marketed as a definite health food and panacea for heart disease...
... but there's not really much supporting this claim - in fact the exact opposite might be true.
While replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat might lower cholesterol levels - it does not prevent coronary artery atherosclerosis, or in plain English buildup of plaque in the arteries.
In a famous study monkeys were put on a baseline diet rich in cholesterol and then divided into three different groups eating either saturated fats, monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fat.
And they ate this way over 5 years.
After 5 years had gone by, the group fed monounsaturated fat did see a decrease in cholesterol levels, but had developed the same amount of artery plaque buildup as those fed saturated fat.
And the third group, monkeys fed with polyunsaturated fat, had seen the biggest drop in both cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
There is not an insignificant amount of evidence indicating that so-called 'heart-healthy' oils are not that good for us (later in the article I'll elaborate on why refined oils aren't particularly healthy).
Monounsaturated fats are best consumed in the form of whole plants food, and not by gulping down heart-healthy refined oils.
As the monkey study I cited above suggested, if you need something to replace saturated fat with your best bet is polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs):
Both clinical trials and epidemiological studies indicate that they can help reduce risk of heart disease.
And it is in this group of dietary fats where we find the all-important essential fatty acids (EFA) I mentioned before:
The polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats are vitamin-like in that they are required for our survival and normal metabolism, as building blocks for our cell membranes, the transportation and oxidation of cholesterol...
... and the production of local hormones called eicosanoids that play critical roles in immune and inflammatory responses.
What's The Best Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3?
You may have heard that it's a good idea to reduce your omega-6 and/or increase omega-3, to balance the two.
Why is that?
Well here's the theory:
Many of the profound effects of ALA (omega-3) and LA (omega-3) are because they convert into other bioactive compounds.
And that's why poor omega-6 has gotten such a bad rep:
Eating a bunch of LA rich foods should in theory elevate levels of inflammatory arachidonic acid (AA) in our cell membranes, which would cause excessive inflammation and a bunch of other diseases associated with chronic inflammation.
Hanging in there?
Well, the gigantic hole in this theory is that whether you increase dietary linoleic acid from baseline by up to 551%, or decrease it by 90%, it doesn’t influence levels of arachidonic acid...
... and there is virtually no evidence that addition of linoleic acid to the diet increases markers of chronic inflammation.
I just don't think obsessing over this completely arbitrary, golden EFA ratio is necessary when you eat an otherwise healthy and varied vegan diet.
Especially considering that omega-6 rich nuts and seeds have been shown to offer a plethora of health benefits.
What I do think is worth obsessing over though is getting your omega-3 every day, either from flax seeds or a good quality vegan omega-3 supplement, due to the wide range of health benefits this PUFA offers.
How Much Fat Should You Eat?
At this point we have a pretty good understanding of fat and it's physiological functions, now for the question you've all been waiting for:
How much fat should you eat on a vegan diet?
This will vary on many different factors such as individual genetics, gender, needs and preferences, body composition goals and so on and so forth.
But a good starting point is to make sure you're getting at least the minimum amount of esssential fat required.
The established adequate daily intake for men is 17 g LA and 1.6 g ALA...
... and for women 12 g LA and 1.1 g ALA.
I reckon this is quite a bit lower than generic recommendations such as 30% of your calories coming from fat - but the truth is that we don't need that much fat to just survive (other nutritional panels actually recommend even lower numbers).
Beyond meeting these basic needs, we get into the discussion of what is required to support a healthy blood lipid and hormonal profile as well as the individual's needs and preferences.
And honestly, you definitely want to eat more than 20 g of fat per day which is likely to be a recipe for disaster.
I would recommend you to view these guidelines as the bare minimum you should hit per day, not as an optimal level for health or performance.
For further customization of your macros and some general recommendations for healthy fat intakes, I will dive a bit deeper into two of the most common fitness goals - adding muscle or losing fat:
How Much Fat Do You Need to Build Muscle?
Dietary fat intake has been shown to influence your hormone levels, and one of those hormones is the anabolic hormone testosterone which plays a key role in promoting muscle growth.
Naturally it would then make sense to try and maximize levels of testosterone to enhance muscle gains.
So how do we go about achieving that?
Well, we have one study that took men and put them on either a 41% fat diet or a 19% fat diet.
That's cutting fat intake roughly in half, so you would expect a drastic change in testosterone right?
Nope, the men on the lower fat diet had about 13% lower testosterone levels, and that's it.
Another relevant study had 26 males volunteer participate at the Pritikin Centre, that basically prescribes a traditional WFPB diet high in unprocessed whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
After 26 days they had experienced no change in testosterone levels.
Another study took 39 men from eating a baseline high fat diet (>30% calories as fat) to a low fat, high fiber diet (~15% calories as fat).
Testosterone levels fell by only 12%.
Finally, there's one particularly interesting study that looked at the effect diet has on hormones in males, where vegans surprisingly had 13% higher testosterone levels than meat-eaters!
Alright with all of this information, how much fat should we be eating to build muscle?
Well, we know that reducing fats from around 30-40% to 20% may slightly negatively impact testosterone levels... but then again vegans also have higher baseline levels.
Being real here, these kind of small fluctuations in testosterone is likely to not have any impact whatsoever, positive or negative, to your muscle and strength gains.
At least not compared to the powerful effects of actual steroids, or other dietary components you have control over such as adequate protein and carb intake (which are huge for optimal muscular development).
Here's the key takeaway on fat intake for building muscle:
A fat intake around 20-30% of daily calories will allow your hormonal system to work optimally...
...and it gives you adequate room to pack in as many carbs as possible which helps a ton with increasing gym performance and enhancing recovery.
How Much Fat Do You Need to Lose Fat?
If I would let a low-carb proponent answer this question the answer would look something like:
"Bro jack up the fats and cut out all carbs so you get magical wizardry metabolic advantages that melt away fat!!"
In reality, energy balance is what dictates fat loss and numerous studies show there are no differences between high-carb and low-carb diets.
Obviously testosterone levels matter just as much when you are bulking up and adding muscle, as it does when you are cutting down and wanting to keep all your vegan muscle.
So while keeping fats somewhere in the 20-30% range in theory will optimize testosterone levels, this can become somewhat unrealistic given the nature of how weight loss looks like.
How is that, you ask?
You see, cutting carbohydrate beyond a certain point during weight loss will deplete glycogen stores and kill your workout performance - which is not good at all for your gains.
In a recent review with guidelines for natural bodybuilding and fat loss, the authors state that it's extremely important to hit a certain amount of carbohydrate each day if you want to keep your gains:
While it appears low carbohydrate, high protein diets can be effective for weight loss, a practical carbohydrate threshold appears to exist where further reductions negatively impact performance and put one at risk for LBM losses.
So if you need to bring calories down and sacrifice calories somewhere during a weight loss phase, it's first going to be fat, and then carbs.
Another recent piece of evidence that supports this to be true, is that bodybuilding competitors that place in the top 5 consume more carbohydrate compared to those that place outside of the top 5.
Here's what I suggest you do:
A lower fat intake between 15-25% of calories, which has been recommended before for bodybuilders, will serve you the best if more fat would mean a reduction in carbohydrate or protein below ideal ranges.
Why Oil Isn't a Particularly Healthy Food
Throughout this article I've hinted at why oils aren't very healthful food.
First, they are more or less the epitome of junk food.
A shit-ton of calories with no nutrients (except for perhaps some trace vitamin E).
You could argue that it's even worse than sugar as fat provides 9 kcal per gram whilst sugar provide only 4 calories per gram.
Wait, it gets way worse.
One study found that adding either 60 ml of olive, soy bean or palm oil to a potato soup meal all resulted in 32.1% decrease in flow-mediated dilatation.
In normal speak this means a reduced capacity for the blood vessels to relax and dilate. This type of endothelial dysfunction is not a good thing when it comes to preventing heart diseaseas as it's a risk factor for clogged arteries.
Additionally there was also a 27% increase in plasma triglycerides after each meal.
Another study yielded similiar results using olive oil in a 900 kcal meal with 50 grams of fat, which reduced flow-mediated vasodilation by 31% and also increased triglyceride levels.
Finally, meals high in both butter and olive oil cause a similiar increase in blood coagulation factors and triglycerides - in case you didn't know you don't want elevated blood coagulation factors as it might lead to blood clots inside the blood vessels.
Good Sources of Vegan Fat
There's are so many more sources of healthy vegan fat other than oils.
Your best bet is going to be nuts and seeds: chia seeds, flax seeds, peanuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts etc.
What might surprise you is that other components of your plant-based diet such as whole grains, starches, legumes and fruits and vegetables also contribute with substantial amounts of essential fatty acids.
For instance, 100 grams of black beans provides 278 mg ALA.
And 200 grams of oatmeal provides a whopping 5,4 grams of LA.
Not mandatory by any means but highly, highly recommended is to also include one tablespoon or more of flax seeds per day.
This is a very convenient way of making sure you get enough of the precious omega-3s per day as one tablespoon provides 1.6 g of ALA.
To ensure you're getting those almighty long-chain omega-3s I would also suggest you to supplement with a quality, vegan algae-based omega-3 supplement.
Here's a list of some awesome plant-based fat sources:
Alright that's a wrap. I hope you learned something new from this article.
I'd love to hear what your favorite sources of vegan fat are in the comments!
PS. If you found this helpful make sure to share with friends that need to get their vegan fat intake sorted!
How Much Fat Should You Eat on a Vegan Diet?