You Need To Eat Fat To Look Good
Previously demonised (fats make you fat, man), sometimes used as a cure for all man’s problems and ailments (I’m full on ketogenesis, man) and sometimes rubbed all over the pecs to make them shine (I need to look good in speedos, man), fat has seen it all.
Here’s what you need to know about fats when eating a plant-based diet.
Why you need fats to be athletic
Dietary fats help the body to regulate hormone levels, such as testosterone, meaning that your efforts in the gym are not in vein. You also need fats in your diet to absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K and to improve the body’s cell health, as well as to regulate the blood pressure.
But perhaps the most immediately tangible function for fats is that they encourage regular bowel movements. Let’s face it, it’s nicer to train with intensity when you don’t have to worry about pooping. Or not pooping. Clearly training is more fun when it has nothing to do with poop.
The different types of fats
There are three main types of dietary fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and each type performs an important role in the body. Because of the different role that each fat type plays, you want to balance them equally in your daily total fat intake. Split the total in three and voila, you’re done. Straight forward so far? We agree. But here’s where it starts to get complicated.
Polyunsaturated fats are complicated arseholes in a plant-based diet
Polyunsaturated fats split into two categories: omega 6 and omega 3. Both of these are important for an optimal health so you want a 1:1 balance in your diet. But a typical plant-based diet is skewed towards omega 6, while almost ignoring omega 3’s. That’s because, like opinionated arseholes, omega 6’s are everywhere: grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, walnut oil, soybean oil, sesame oil, most nuts… And don’t even get me started of vegan margarine and butter substitutes using vegetable oils. Eat real food. Put avocado on toast. Whatever.
Omega 3’s on the other hand are mainly found in fish and seafood making them rather hard to get for plant-based eaters. These fatty acids help reduce inflammation, heart disease, digestive disorders (might help you poop too), joint and muscle pain and depression.
It’s not that omega 6’s are bad, they’re not even arseholes to be honest as they’re vital for the body. But when we consume them in excess compared to their brothers omega 3’s this can contribute to inflammation and increase the risk of not so fun conditions like heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis and depression.
By the way, the same goes for omega 3’s. They’re not “better” than omega 6's, it’s just that omega 3 sources are not as abundant.
And here’s where it gets even more confusing for a plant-based eater
Omega 3’s split into three different types of fatty acids: alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
If you glance at the nutrition label of certain plant-based foods such as chia seeds, walnuts and flaxseed you might think that eating those by themselves covers your daily omega 3 needs. Wrong! All of the above consists mostly ALA fatty acid which the body has to convert to a usable form. And at a rate of 5-15%, this conversion to a usable form is batshit poor.
For a raging plant-based eater to get all the necessary benefits of omega 3 you need to supplement 200-400mg of DHA from microalgae which can then also be converted to EPA (no need to supplement separately with EPA).
Quick note on trans fats
This is the nasty stuff you want to avoid. It is commonly used in snack food, packaged baked goods, and for frying fast food. In 2018 The World Health Organization introduced a guide to eliminate industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the global food supply. You know it can’t be good your long-term health and gains.
But, since you eat mostly plant-based wholefood diet you don’t have to worry about this. Just so you know.
Plant based fat sources
How about pecans, walnuts and walnut oil? Those are high in omega 3 fats, right?
We haven’t included walnuts or pecans on our list because, yes, they are high in omega 3’s, but they are also incredibly high in omega 6’s. Further messing up your omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. This doesn't mean they're "bad" or that you should never eat them. Rather, keep the intake on the lower side.
Saturated fat must be the true evil then...
Well, no. Saturated fat is neither the devil or the saviour.
Sure, compared to unsaturated fats and carbohydrates, saturated fat “has been linked to increase some risk factors for heart disease, but not directly to heart disease itself”(1). The current science doesn’t provide enough evidence to directly link saturated fat with negative (or positive) effects on heart health. Compared to unsaturated fats, saturated fat does increase some risk factors for heart disease, but it also reduces some.
All that being said, saturated fat shouldn’t be an issue for plant-based eater anyways since it’s mainly found in animal based foods. In a plant-based diet you’ll find it in coconut flesh (and products derived from it), cacao (especially cacao butter) and palm oil and kernels. Unless you eat those as your only sources of fats you’re golden.
How much fat should you eat
Let’s back up a bit. As per our Protein and Carbohydrate articles, as a starting point we recommend beginning at around 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram, and getting around 55% of your calories from carbohydrates. Whatever is left after that can be allocated for fats. And since fat has 9 calories per gram (protein and carbs have 4 calories), for a 75 kilogram male that would leave around 27% of the total calories for fats.
As always, these numbers are not set in stone, but rather can act as a starting point. You might feel better, train harder and see better results by trying different fat to carbohydrate ratios. That being said, skinnier guys with an ambition for an athletic body usually do better with considerably higher carb and lower fat approach. As a plant-based eater it’s also easier to follow a high carb diet and get in all your amino acids.
Getting less than 20% of your diet from dietary fats may results in poorer fat soluble vitamin absorption and hormone function (as well as other stuff we covered in the beginning) so we don’t recommend going lower than that.
Aim to get ⅓ of your total fat intake from each of the three fat types, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and saturated. Balance your omega 3 and omega 6 from polyunsaturated fats by aiming for 1:1 ratio. Conversion rate from plant-based omega 3’s (ALA) to DHA and EPA is batshit poor so you will need to supplement with 200-400mg of DHA from microalgae.
You’ll need at least 20% of your dietary intake from fats to optimize hormone function and fat soluble vitamin absorption. Plus a host of other important functions in the body. And you might even poop better.
For most guys with a desire for an athletic body, start at around 25-30% of your daily calories from fats and adjust based on how you feel and perform.