How Much Fat Should You Eat on a Vegan Diet?
When I first transitioned to a vegan diet this particular issue perplexed me:
How much fat was I supposed to eat now? And where do I get my fat from?
By cutting out animal products I had effectively eliminated all fat sources from my diet - which means I didn't have a single clue as to how much and what kind of fat I should eat.
It doesn't make it any easier that there's far from any agreement on dietary fat intake on a plant-based diet:
There are vegans that do 80/10/10, high-carb and low-fat diets...
... and then on the other side of the spectrum some prefer a vegan keto diet with carbs under 30 g per day (it does sound like a contradiction, but it's definitely a thing).
So as a vegan, what should you do?
Well that is what we're going to determine right now:
At the end of this article you'll know exactly how much and what kind of fat you need on a vegan diet for both optimal health and performance.
Let's get to it.
What is dietary fat?
Along with carbohydrate and protein, fat is one of the three macronutrients that make up the calories we consume.
Dietary fat not only provides calories we use as fuel, but is also an essential nutrient.
Which means that per day you require a certain amount for sustaining healthy hormonal status, manufacturing of healthy cell membranes, satiety, cognitive function, proper nutrient absorption and in general keeping your sanity.
Within the group fats (aka fatty acids aka triglycerides) there's quite a bit of variety.
The two main groups of fats are 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 small amounts of saturated fats.
Is it a good idea to be consuming lots of saturated fat?
Despite what keto and paleo gurus preach, after all these years saturated fat still is unhealthy.
Recommendations to limit saturated fat is not a conspiracy born from a collusion between the sugar industry and the government to sneak sugar into your cereal and mind control you...
... thet exist to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
There's been tons written on this subject, and if you want to know more Jeff Novick has written an excellent series of article explaining why saturated fat isn't healthy.
In animal products saturated fat often comes with cholesterol , which is not a triglyceride but a completely different kind of lipid.
Naturally a vegan diet will contain zero cholesterol which is great because it eliminates another risk factor for heart disease. All the cholesterol you need for creating healthy cell membranes, vitamin D production and so on is synthesized by the body.
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 (MUFA), such as 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 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).
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 opposite might be true.
While replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat might lower cholesterol levels, it does not prevent coronary artery atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in arteries).
In one study monkeys were put on a baseline diet rich in cholesterol and then divided into a group eating saturated fats, monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fat for 5 years.
The group fed monounsaturated fat did see a decrease in cholesterol levels, but developed the same amount of artery plaque buildup as those fed saturated fat (monkeys fed polyunsaturated fat saw the biggest drop in cholesterol and atherosclerosis).
There are also other reasons for why refined oils aren't particularly healthy which I'll get into later.
Monounsaturated fats should be consumed in the form of whole plants food and not by gulping down high-oleic oils.
As the monkey study 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.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
In order to both maintain good health and survive, we have to get the essential fatty acids (EFA) through our diet:
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.
This might be quite a bit lower than generic recommendations such as 20-30% of calories coming from fat - but in reality we simply don't need that much fat to survive. (other nutritional panels recommend even lower numbers)
The EFA are quite similiar to vitamins in that they serve multiple vital functions in the body:
Balance of omega-3 to omega-6
"Should I reduce my intake of omega-6 to get a better EFA ratio? I've heard that it's important for health reasons"
To fully grasp this we need to go further down the rabbit hole of omega-3 and omega-6, I'll try to keep this as simple as possible.
Many of the profound effects of alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are because they act as precursors for other, more bioactive derivates:
ALA converts to the longer chain omega-3's EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both which are responsible for the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3.
LA converts to the long chain omega-6 AA (arachidonic acid), a precursor to a variety of signalling molecules called eicosanoids some of which are inflammatory (but not all of them).
Both of these conversions "compete", so to speak, for the same enzyme called delta 6-desaturase in the synthesis of the long-chain fatty acids EPA, DHA and AA.
As noted, arachidonic acid (omega-6) is the precursor to eicosanoids, local hormones, that are mostly inflammatory in their nature
In an opposing fashion, eicosapentaenoic acid (omega-3) gives rise to eicosanoids that often have anti-inflammatory properties. (EPA & DHA also give rise to resolvins that are potentially anti-inflammatory and inflammation resolving)
Hanging in there? Alright.
The basis for the idea of an 'ideal' omega-6/omega-3 ratio is that when we eat too much linoleic acid, our tissue levels of AA would spike, resulting in a bunch of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids that predispose us to excessive inflammation and a bunch of diseases that would entail.
Sounds plausible, right?
The chart below might help visualize this concept.
Is omega-6 a poison?
I think it's fair to say that the standard american garbage diet with processed junk foods, animal products, refined carbs and lack of nutrients is an unhealthy way of eating.
And it's plausible that the complete lack of concern for omega-3s, whilst gorging on refined plant oils with tons of omega-6 (also oxidized as it's used for deep-frying) adds to the injury.
Worrying about dietary linoleic acid intake from whole plant foods because it might screw up your 'perfect omega-6/omega-3 ratio', and theoretically wreak havoc on your system, is a huge logical leap.
All sources online that support the stance of an optimal omega-6/omega-3 ratio links back to this one paper.
When you actually examine the studies this review bases it's hypothesis on - the positive health effects are mainly due to an increase in omega-3 intake and not due to decreasing omega-6 (as well as other confounding factors).
The quote "A ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality" is based on this study, where patients after their first heart attack were assigned to either a Mediterranean-style diet high in ALA or a usual post-infarct prudent diet with more polyunsaturated fats.
Now was the 70% decrease in mortality due to the 4/1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio...
... or because they also consumed significantly less total lipids, saturated fat, cholesterol and also more omega-3 in the form of ALA?
Well here's the truth about omega-6:
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.
It appears that the conversion from LA to AA is tightly controlled by the enzymatic conversion through delta-6 desaturase.
And as mentioned above, one major confounding factor is that people mostly consume omega-6 in the form of refined, calorie-dense oil (also often used for the purpose of deep frying so it's probably also rancid to some degree).
It's not a huge stretch of the imagination that lots of refined oil, which by all definitions is a high-calorie junk food, is bad for your health.
On the other hand, linoleic acid found in whole plant foods in the natural matrix with fiber, proteins, carbohydrate, other molecules and vitamin E to keep the fats from oxidizing, is a drastically different beast.
Both epidemiologic studies and clinical trials on nut consumption consistently shows a beneficial impact on cardiovascular risk factors, lowering of cholesterol and a potential positive effect on hypertension, cancer, and inflammation.
How to get enough omega-3 on a vegan diet
Many of the benefits linked to a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio can be attributed due to the increase in anti-inflammatory omega-3.
For vegans that do not supplement with an algae-based omega-3 supplement, ALA will be their only source of omega-3
As mentioned previously, ALA is the precursor for the long-chain omega-3 PUFA eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Unfortunately this process is metabolically costly...
...and the synthesis rate sits at ALA to EPA at 5%, and ALA to DHA at <0.5%.
To put this into perspective:
One tablespoon of flaxseed contains 1,6 g of ALA, and assuming a conversion efficiency of ALA to DHA at 0,5% (might be even less), this would result in 8 mg or less of DHA.
Even though this conversion might be augmented when there is no preformed EPA & DHA in your diet, and also with a lower intake of omega-6 so as to not hog the delta 6-desaturase enzyme, the amount of DHA synthesized will still be very low.
Omnivores that have access to preformed EPA & DHA in the form of fatty fish , consequently also enjoy higher tissue levels of DHA compared to vegans.
Good news is that vegans that fall below the desirable threshold for omega-3 index (<4%), can succesfully raise their omega-3 levels with an algae-based supplement.
(Black columns before intervention, grey columns after 12 weeks supplementing 254 mg EPA & DHA per day.)
Hence why my recommendation is to both ensure you get your ALA from plant sources such as flax seeds and also to supplement with an algae-based omega-3 supplement for the precious EPA & DHA.
Recommendations for vegan fat intake
Now for the question you've all been waiting for, how much fat should you eat on a vegan diet?
A good starting point is to make sure you're getting at least the minimum required amount of fat in per day.
As noted above, the adequate intake for the esssential fatty acids is established at:
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.
As such there might not be a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to dietary fat on a plant-based diet:
The majority of vegan athletes will most likely perform at maximum capacity by eating a diet with plenty of carbohydrate. But in the same token it must be mentioned that there can be up to a 40% difference to the degree that individuals utilize either carbohydrate or fat for energy demands.
Furthermore if you're insulin sensitive you might lose more weight with a high-carb, low-fat diet whereas if you are insulin resistant a higher-fat approach might help you lose more weight.
Anecdotally most people function and feel a lot better with a higher fat intake than the minimum EFA needs at 20 grams or less (I know I certainly do!).
Hence why I prefer giving a range for fat intake so you get to have some personal input and adjust accordingly based on the feedback you get from your body.
A good starting place for fat intake on a vegan diet is 0.5-1 grams of fat per kg, or 0.25-0.5 g fat per pound.
Why oil isn't a particularly healthy food
Throughout this article I've hinted at why oils aren't very healthful food.
Here's the gist of why:
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 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?