If you are vegan or have been considering veganism, you might have heard about a “low-fat vegan diet” or HCL (High Carb Low Fat). But what does a low-fat vegan diet looks like and what are the benefits?
When I first went vegan almost 10 years ago I didn’t have all the nutrition knowledge I have now. I did have, however, a big fear of carbohydrates and the misconception that they ‘make you fat’ —courtesy of the pervasive diet culture that is still very present.
As you can imagine, going vegan and trying to stay away from carbs is quite challenging since most plants have a high percentage of them. This made me resort to living of trail-mixes, salads (with lots of avocados) and protein shakes. (Not good, I know).
Despite my efforts and calculations, I noticed I was gaining weight at a asecure and steady pace.
Although my motivations for going vegan were always ethical, as a vain 20-year old I wasn’t too excited about the weight gain. So, with the hopes of finding a solution, I was inspired to do some serious research which eventually lead me to start my nutrition studies.
But what I want to share with you in this article is what I have learned over years of study and personal experience about:
✓ What does a low-fat vegan diet look like
✓ Is a low-fat vegan diet healthy
✓ The role of fats in the vegan diet
✓ How to lose weight with a low-fat vegan diet
What is a low-fat vegan diet?
A low-fat vegan diet is based on the premise that we only need a small amount of good fats in our diets to get our necessary vital nutrients.
The proponents of low-fat vegan diets claim that outside of this amount, fats are not essential and can on the contrary be a source of weight gain and some diseases, especially when talking about unhealthy sources of fat.
While there are different recommendations when it comes to a low-fat vegan diet, most of them coincide with an intake of 15%-20% of daily calories coming from fats.
What are the benefits of a low-fat vegan diet?
While most people associate a vegan diet with a healthy one, it doesn’t always necessarily mean so. There are also vegan version of fast and junk food as well as vegan substitutes of dairy and meat that can’t be considered healthy.
In this scenario, a low-fat vegan diet offers many benefits since it requires choosing whole foods over processed ones as well as avoiding calorie-dense foods with low nutritional value like oils.
It promotes weight loss
When it comes to macronutrients, fats are more calorically dense than carbohydrates and proteins. While carbs and proteins offer 4 calories per gram, fats offer 9 calories per gram.
This means that just by cutting out fats, you can effortlessly reduce a big percentage of your daily calories, which would result in weight loss if done consistently.
Additionally, vegan foods that are low in fat such as legumes, yams, vegetables, grains, and fruits, have a low calorie to volume ratio which means that you can get full easily while consuming less calories.
For example, if we compare half and avocado with 2 medium size potatoes, both of which offer 200 calories, we can say that the 2 potatoes are more filling.
It goes even further when we compare oils or processed foods. One small serving of french fries has around 500 calories while for the same amount you can eat one cup of beans and one cup of rice.
It helps prevent disease
A low-fat vegan diet promotes the consumption of mostly whole foods while reducing oils and processed foods. This leaves all bad cholesterol (LDL) out of your diet, which is responsible for risk factors like increased blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure.
One study on the Effect of a Low-Fat Vegan Diet showed that following such diet reduced three key risk factors: They improved insulin sensitivity, or how easily the body converts sugars into energy; they sped up their post-meal metabolism, and they reduced the amount of fat accumulating inside cells.
“Our study has shown that this diet addresses the underlying mechanisms behind obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, all at the same time,”Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD.
It improves nutrition
A low-fat vegan diet often involves choosing whole-nutritiously-dense foods which provide your boy with the micrnutrients (vitamins and minerals) it needs to perfom its functions and keep you alive and healthy.
Once you make the intention to choose low-fat vegan foods, you will soon realize that processed foods are often high in fats and contain oils and margarines that have no nutrtional value or benefit.
While I believe a healthy long term ‘diet’ should be flexible and include all types of foods, a low-fat vegan diet will help you prioritize whole foods and reduced those highly processed ones.
It improves skin and reduces acne
If you suffer from acne as an adult, some of the possible causes are related to what you eat. Dairy, oil, and processed foods are inflammatory can cause your skin to break out.
Additionally, oil consumption (of any kind) has been shown to spike blood triglyceride levels. And the consumption of saturated fats like coconut oil and palm oil also raises LDL cholesterol.
This study shows that people with acne had higher blood triglyceride levels and higher LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol than people without acne.
In my case, I had tried many things to clear out my acne including antibiotics and hormones but I didn’t want to depend on pills forever and my acne kept coming back.
Even when I was vegan but was still eating stuff like french fries occasionally, my acne was always there and the only thing that made it go away was cutting out oil completely from my diet.
A lot of vegans have had the same experience and it’s part of the reason behind the ‘oil-free’ vegan trends. So, if you are struggling with acne while eating a vegan diet, consider cutting out oil and processed foods to see how that works for you.
It helps you feel energized
If you have ever fallen into the trap of trying to follow a low-carb diet, you know that it comes accompanied by low energy and even headaches from the lack of glucose which your brain literally needs to function.
In contrast, a low-fat diet is naturally high in carbohydrates and is the best way to give your body the energy it needs to survive and do all the amazing things it does for you.
Types of Low-Fat Vegan Diets
A low-fat vegan diet sounds quite specific, doesn’t it? But despite that, there are some different versions created with the hopes of appealing to particular crowds:
Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
As its name says, a whole foods vegan diet prioritizes foods in their natural state so you would also avoid and limit processed foods such as vegan cheeses, mock meats, junk foods, etc. which are often high in fat.
However, a whole foods diet puts is no emphasis on the amount of fat you should consume so you could technically eat as many avocados, nuts, and unsaturated oils as your heart desires but that is usually not that case so it tends to be a low-fat diet anyway.
This diet focuses on health and nutrition looking to get all the vitamins and minerals your body need (or as many as possible) from whole foods.
On the other side, while weight loss is not its main goal, eating a plant-based diet of mostly whole foods will often lead to healthy body weight and an improvement in energy levels.
The Starch Solution
The Starch Solution is a whole-food, plant-based diet created by John A. McDougall, MD, a physician, author, and founder of the McDougall Programs.
As its name suggests, this diet places a heavy emphasis on starches which are a type of carbohydrates known as ‘complex carbohydrates’.
Starches like such as potatoes, grains, and legumes. differentiate from other carbs because they are high in starch and fiber which means they take longer to digest and don’t cause a spike in blood levels like simple carbohydrates.
Dr. McDougall bases his approach on the premise that most greater civilizations with a large population of trim, healthy people consumed a diet based on starches. E.g. rice in any Asian country, potatoes and quinoa for the Incas of South America, corn for Mayans and Aztecs of Central America, and wheat for the Egyptians.
The Starch Solution eliminates all high-fat products, processed foods, and vegetable oils so the only fat you get is the small percentage that is found in starches and fruit peel.
While this diet emphasizes weight loss, it also offers insight on reducing inflammation and thereby reducing the risk of various health conditions. Dr. McDougall has helped people lose more than 125 pounds in mere months, as well as patients who have conquered life-threatening illnesses such as type-2 diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
One of the factors that help the popularization of the Starch Solution was the Youtuber “High Carb Hanna”h, who lost 60lbs on this diet. You can check out her story below.
High Carb Low Fat Vegan Diet (HCLF)
A high carb low-fat diet is the most common and basic type of low-fat diet.
It is also similar to a whole-foods plant-based diet but HCLF makes it a point to emphasize carbs and limit fats, keeping a macro breakdown of 75 to 80 percent carbs, 10 to 15 percent protein, and 10 to 15 percent fats.
When compared to The Starch Solution, A HCLF diet welcomes all types of carbohydrates including fruits and processed foods like pasta and bread which are limited in The Starch Solution.
If you used to be afraid of carbs (like me) then this can be a very liberating experience where you can prove for yourself that carbs are not the devil and you can eat them without gaining weight,
Carbs are your body’s most efficient source of energy so by eating a high-carb diet so you’ll feel full of energy for your workouts or for going about your life.
What to eat on a low-fat vegan diet? (Low-fat vegan foods)
Legumes are typically low in fat and contain no cholesterol. They are a great source of complex carbohydrates and they are also rich in resistant starch which promotes a healthy gut.
Legumes are also a great source of plant-based protein. For example, a 100-gram serving of cooked chickpeas provided 18 percent of the daily value for protein. They also are an excellent source of iron, and their high fiber content is great for keeping you full in between meals.
Legume options include beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, peanuts, and alfalfa.
It is no secret that vegetables are a key element of any healthy diet and is no different when it comes to a low-fat vegan one.
Vegetables are naturally low in fat and free of cholestherol, They also provide many of the nutrients your body needs as well as fiber, vitamins and minerals.
When following a low-fat vegan diet, vegetables are a kitchen staple and the most varied category of foods. It is important to eat a wide variety of them so you can get all the minerals and vitamins and at the same time can keep your meals fresh and never get bored.
Generally speaking, vegetables are divided into:
- Starchy: corn, Parsnips, Butternut squash, potatoes, yams and beans
- Non-starchy: Artichokes, Asparagus, Bean sprouts, Brussels sprouts, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Celery, Cucumber, Eggplant, Mushrooms, Onions, Peppers, Leafy greens, Tomato, Turnips, Zucchini, etc.
Both starchy and non-starchy vegetables are great sources of important vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Potatoes have gotten have a bad rap as an “unhealthy” food because they’re often fried or saturated with butter and oil.
But potatoes are actually are a great low-fat nutrient-dense vegan staple that can even promote weight loss. This study found that if people ate potatoes (5-7 servings a week) in healthy recipes, they actually lost weight.
And one of the best things about potatoes is that they can be prepared in endless forms even without adding oils or butter. There is even a whole book of low-fat potato vegan recipes to get inspiration from.
Anecdotally, Andrew Taylor, a 35-year-old dad from Melbourne, Australia lost 22 pounds in 30 days by following a day of 99% potatoes. Not that this is a healthy or complete diet but it is proof that potatoes are no fattening when prepared correctly.
Whole Grains and cereals
Whole grains are not only low in fat but also a staple food group for any healthy vegan diet.
They also provide some important nutrients that can be challenging to get on a plant-based diet like, iron, zinc, and B-vitamins which is why eating them is key to ensuring you get enough of those vital vitamins and minerals.
If that doesn’t seem like enough reasons, Studies have found that diets rich in whole grains have been linked to lower risks of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Some ancient grains like spelt and teff also offer an important amount of protein with 10–11 grams of protein per cooked cup and the pseudocereals amaranth and quinoa come in a close second with around 9 grams of complete protein per cooked cup.
- Rice (brown rice and colored rice)*
- Corn (including popcorn!)*
- Wild rice*
Fruits are another awesome food group that has gotten a bad reputation because it contains sugar. But, the sugar in fruits is different to the processed sugar found in candies, cakes, and the one sold at supermarkets.
The sugar in fruits comes accompanied by fiber as well as vitamins and mineral so is perfectly good to consume it as part of a low-fat vegan diet.
What to avoid on a low-fat vegan diet
Now that you know what foods to include in your low-fat vegan diet, let’s recap those that you should avoid or limit.
Oil is a highly processed, high-fat “food” with a very low nutritional value and a very high caloric density so it makes sense that people on a low-fat vegan diet choose to cut it out completely.
As we all know, oil is not found hanging in nature so it needs to be extracted from different foods and seeds. In the process, most nutrients except for some valuable omega-3 fatty acids, are eliminated. This results in an extremely dense food with little nutritional value.
While vegetables typically have around 100 calories per pound and fruits 300 calories per pound, oil has 4,000 calories per pound. Just 1 tablespoon contains 120 calories so you can imagine just how easy it is to consume a lot of calories from it pretty quickly.
Moreover, studies have shown that consuming processed oils contributes to impaired artery function and the clogging of arteries that occurs in heart disease.
So bottom line? It prived little to no benefits and lots of potential disadvantages so cutting it out from your diet will help you reduce calories and prevent diseases.
How to cook low-fat vegan food (without oil)?
Since we are so used to cooking with oil, it can be strange to think of an oil-free kitchen. But the truth is, oil is not essential for cooking and you can prepare anything as good but healthier without it.
Here are some of the most common oil-free cooking methods to consider:
- Sautéing and stir-frying: Yes, you can sauté or stir-fry without butter or oil. by replacing it with a little bit of water or broth. Add 1-2 tbsp at a time and until the food is ready.
- Baking: this can be a bit tricky since oil is already a substitute for butter but in most cases, you can replace it with applesauce or dairy-free yogurt. If possible, you can always check with the creator of the recipe you want to make.
- Roasting: to my surprise and probably yours too, you don’t need to coat your vegetables in oil for them to roast nicely even though it might take a little longer. You can use a little bit of water or flax-egg to help your spices stick to the veggies.
- Deep frying: You might not be able to deep fry without oil but you can enjoy oven-baked fries or use an air-fryer for a delicious and healthier alternative.
Junk And Processed Foods
If you are following a low-fat diet, you’ll naturally want to avoid any kind of junk food since it is often high in fat and contain lots of oil, or margarine.
Processed foods like cookies, chips, premade meals, and sauces also tend to have a high amount of fats and oils. If you start to pay attention to the fat content in processed foods, you will start wondering why do they put so much oil in everything. (I think the answer is simply because it gives it some flavor, is cheap, and not a lot of people care about it)
High Fat Whole Foods*
Whole foods that are high in fats such as avocados, nuts, and seeds are welcomed in a low fat vegan diet but in moderation sincea little bit goes a long way when it comes to fats and meeting your daily requirements.
For example,15%-20% of a 180-calories diet equals 270-360 calories or 36-40 grams of fat. You can get this with a small avocado or half a cup of almonds but other foods including legumes, vegetables, grains, and fruits also have a small content of fat so it is important to take that into consideration.
What to eat in a low-fat vegan diet?
Depending on where you are coming from, you might find it less or more challenging to imagine a day of eating with a low fat vegan diet.
If you are used to eating a whole foods plant based diet you might not need to change much except for paying attention and maybe reducing the amount of fats you were eating.
On the other hand, if you are used to eating an omnivore diet or a vegan diet that includes fast and processed food, you might need make more adjstmets if you wish to follow a low fat vegan diet.
Here are a few ideas of whta to eat on a low-fat vegan diet:
- Smoothie or smoothie bowl
- Chia pudding
- Tofu scramble
- PB2 and Jelly toast
- Pasta dishes
- Legumes and rice
- Buddha Bowls
- Bean Burgers
- Curries (without oil)
- Stews (no oil)
- Baked dishes
For more ideas on what to eat on a low-fat vegan diet make sure to check out this article with lots of Weight Loss Vegan Recipes
In the video below you can also find some good vegan staples to include in your vegan low-fat diet
Is a low-fat vegan diet healthy?
A low-fat vegan diet has a lot of characteristics of a healthy diet however, there are some common concerns that are worth mentioning.
Potential for Deficiencies on a Low-Fat Vegan Diet
When you are following a vegan diet whether that is low fat or not, there are some nutrients you should consider supplementing since they are impossible to get from plants
- Vitamin B12: If you are vegan, you know you need to supplement your B12, even non-vegans have b12 deficiency but that’s a topic from another time. B12 supplementation is equally important in all vegan diets so that doesn’t make a low-fat diet unhealthy, it is just something to keep in mind. If you want to learn more about it, check out this article on B12 and vegan diets
- DHA and EPA (Omega 3): DHA and EPA are considered essential fatty acids because our bodies can’t produce them and they are key to many health aspects including cardiovascular health. Non-vegans often take fish oil to get. But since vegans don’t eat fish oil, we can take supplements of DHA/EPA that come from algae.
- Vitamin D: This one is not exclusively related to a vegan or low-fat diet but to all humans. We should normally get vitamin D through sun exposure but since that is also dangerous, it is best to get it through supplementation.
I like taking this supplement since it is formulated by vegans, for vegans and contains the daily requirements of these 3 nutrients. (vitamin D, B12, and DHA/EPA).
What about protein?
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need as much protein as the meat industry wants us to believe.
While a low-fat diet doesn’t say anything about how much protein you should be eating, it encourages a whole foods diet varied diet. If you follow this principle and include legumes and vegetables in your diet, you will get enough protein for an average person.
If you are an athlete or bodybuilder, you will need more protein to help with recovery and performance, in that case, you can still follow a low-fat vegan diet but make it a point to consume 20% to 25% of your calories from protein.
What about Vegetables?
The case for vegetables is similar to the case of protein. While a low-fat diet doesn’t say anything about vegetables, it still promotes a whole food varied diet that logically includes vegetables and fruits.
Some types of low-fat diets like The Starch Solution put a lot more emphasis on starches and avoiding fats that in including nutrients so people following them can fail to include enough vegetables in their diets.
Vegetables are an essential part of any diet so if you want to follow a low-fat vegan diet make sure to include lots of them to get all those important nutrients.
How much fat does your body need?
The amount of fat your body needs will depend on personal details like age and weight as well as whether you are trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or maintain your weight.
If you are simply looking to take care of your overall health, it is recommended that the total amount of fat in their diets should not exceed 35% of their total caloric intake.
The same applies if you are trying to gain muscle mass since a lower fat intake can lower your testosterone slightly reducing the rate at which you can gain muscle.
On the other hand, if you are trying to lose weight, you can consume a minimum of 15-20% which will allow you to get important nutrients like Omega-3s while creating a caloric deficit that allows for fat loss.
Do vegans get enough fat?
Unless vegans are going out of their way to avoid fats, they will get enough fats since the amount we need is small and fats are present in all foods even in vegetables.
Now, when it comes to essential fatty acids, vegans should consider supplementation since the only vegan source for EPA and DHA is algae which is quite hard to consume enough to cover our daily requirements.
A low-fat vegan diet can present many health and aesthetic levels since it naturally rules out unhelahty food that are devoided of nutrients like oils, junk food and processed foods.
At the same time, it is importnat to cosnider that a low-fat diet vegan diet alone is not synonimus of health. It needs to include a variety of vegetable and vegan protein sources as well as important supplement such as B12 and Omega 3.
Finally, a low-fat vegan diet is not necessary since you can follow a healthy vegan diet that supports your health as much as your fitness goals by eating the right amount of each macronutrient. You can learn more about Vegan Macros here