HCLF Vegan Diet

The Ultimate Guide to HCLF Vegan Diets (High Carb Low Fat)

If you’re trying to learn about high carb low fat (HCLF) vegan diets, you’ve come to the right place. I have a few years of experience with eating HCLF vegan in the past and, more recently, quitting it. (I’m still vegan, but not fully HCLF. I’ll share why.)

In addition, the nutritional debates around HCLF veganism fascinate me. So I’ll be covering all the procs and cons as I see them. Let’s dive into it!

What Is a High-Carb Low-Fat Vegan Diet?

A high carb low fat (HCLF) vegan diet excludes all animal products while emphasizing carbs over fats. Examples include the starch-based diet and the fruitarian diet. Typically, the macronutrient ratio achieved is around 80% carbs, 10% fat, and 10% protein.

In practical terms, an HCLF vegan diet is a vegan diet that mostly excludes vegetable oils, including cooking oil. So you’ll want to learn how to cook without oil. (Or just eat raw fruits and veggies, as we’ll explore below.)

An HCLF vegan diet also minimizes other major sources of fat. So if you had a vegan diet where you smeared peanut butter on everything you ate, that would not be HCLF.

But you can still eat small amounts of fat on this diet. The details will depend on which specific version of the diet you eat.

Three Versions of the HCLF Vegan Diet

A range of different vegan diets could all fit the description “high carb low fat.” This is because, by their nature, most plant-based foods are high in carbs and low in fat.

In practice, many people following an HCLF vegan diet may mix and match from the following diet approaches. Still, it can be helpful to see the possible variations on the spectrum of what you can do:

1. Starch-Based Diet.

One version of an HCLF vegan diet is a “starch-based diet.” This diet emphasizes starches like potatoes, rice, wheat, corn, pasta, cereal, and oats. It was made popular by Dr. John McDougall and, more recently, Youtubers like High Carb Hannah and Potato Strong.

A starch-based diet focuses on comfort foods like pasta, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob. But you don’t add fatty oils or butter to them, and you don’t eat meat with them. This leaves you with a comfy, delicious diet that usually aids in weight loss because of the lower caloric density.

2. Fruitarian Diet (HCRV = High Carb Raw Vegan).

Another version of an HCLF diet is a raw, fruitarian diet. This diet is based on the work of Dr. Douglas Graham in his book The 80/10/10 Diet. You mostly eat fruit, along with some greens. There is a focus on eating “mono-meals” (only one food per meal) to improve digestion.

More recently, a popular version off-shoot of the fruitarian diet focuses on eating a lot of bananas and dates specifically. There’s a community of these raw vegans literally called 30 Bananas a Day.

A strict fruitarian diet includes NO cooked food. Instead, the carbs come mainly from fruit sugar. This adds more water and certain vitamins to the diet. But it’s also harder for many people to stick to a fruitarian diet, and all the sugar can be a problem for many people (more on that below).

3. Whole Food Plant-Based Diet (WFPB).

A third diet that can fit into the HCLF vegan definition is the “whole food plant-based diet” (WFPB diet). This diet may include some more fat sources like nuts and avocado. But it’s simply a diet based on whole plant foods, which naturally tend to be high in carbs.

A whole food plant-based diet may look like a mix between the starch-based diet and the fruitarian diet, with some added nuts and seeds. Refined oil, sugar, and flour are all restricted. Variations on this diet include the Nutritarian diet by Dr. Joel Furhman and the diet promoted by Dr. Michael Greger.

Another branch of the WFPB diet would be the heart disease reversal diets by Dr. Dean Ornish (the original) and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. These diets have actually been proven in documented studies to open up clogged arteries and improve blood flow in the coronary arteries. Pretty amazing!

Historical Examples of Healthy Populations Eating HCLF Diets

Part of the evidence that a low-fat vegan diet is healthy is found by looking at the diet consumed in the “Blue Zones” of the world.

Blue Zones are populations that have had an unusually long life expectancy. These include the Okinawans in Japan, as well as Seventh-Day Adventists in California.

Sweet potatoes!

These populations have a very high number of people who live past 90 and even 100. For a full article on why people Blue Zones are so healthy, you can check out this article. But one of the main factors causing their longevity is thought to be their diets.

Blue Zones all share a diet that is 95% composed of whole plant foods. Most of them are not completely vegetarian or vegan, but their intake of animal foods is highly limited.

And when you look at the macronutrient breakdown of these Blue Zone diets, you see a ratio around 80% of calories from carbohydrate, 10% from protein, and 10% from fat.

So the 80/10/10 ratio that you’ll hear about from HCLF vegans is actually just the common ratio that has already been seen from the longest-lived populations in the world that eat mostly whole plant foods.

Why Not Eat Oil?

One of the key differences between an HCLF vegan diet and your average vegan diet is that HCLF vegans don’t eat refined oils—or not much of them. But why?

Refined oils are unhealthy in a similar way as refined sugars: When the oil is separated from the whole food, it becomes easy to overconsume it and cause disease in the body.

Specifically, studies have shown that consuming processed oils contributes to impaired artery function and the clogging of arteries that occurs in heart disease.

Mic the Vegan gives an overview of the negative health impacts of oil. Note: Mic himself does eat some oil, and he recommends it to vegans who need to gain weight.

Oddly, it’s common wisdom that processed sugar is not healthy, but oil is less commonly viewed as being harmful to health. In fact, olive oil is often viewed as a health food.

In this way, an HCLF diet which excludes processed sugar and oil is just a more consistent version of other popular diets that exclude only refined sugar.

Why an HCLF Vegan Diet Can Help with Weight Loss

In recent years, the HCLF vegan diet has skyrocketed in popularity due to many people having success losing weight with it.

There are three main reasons why an HCLF vegan diet can aid with weight loss:

1. It Makes You Cut Out Processed Foods.

An HCLF vegan diet forces you to stop eating processed oils, which forces you to stop eating most processed food. You can’t eat potato chips cooked in oil. You can’t eat fries cooked in oil. You can’t eat cookies or cakes that have oil in them. And so on.

This movement away from processed foods is always going to be positive. Whether you’re going to an HCLF vegan diet or even something like a paleo diet, cutting out processed foods is a good thing.

You can still eat refined sugar on some versions of an HCLF vegan diet, but a lot of common junk foods are just off-limits.

2. The Foods Are Less Calorically Dense.

A low-fat diet can help with weight loss because carbs are much less calorically dense than fats.

500 calories of starches or produce will mostly fill your stomach—but 500 calories of cheese or oil won’t come close. Credit: Forks Over Knives.

Low-fat plant foods have a lot of bulk—fiber and water content—that help to fill you up without contributing calories. So you can stuff yourself on them and often still not gain weight.

3. Your Body Is Inefficient at Turning Carbs into Body Fat.

Your body can turn any calories into body fat if it needs to. But it’s much more efficient at turning dietary fat in body fat than turning carbs or protein into body fat.

The molecules in dietary fat don’t need to be modified very much in order to be stored as body fat. But it’s more of a process to turn carbohydrate molecules into fatty acids to store.

You can still gain weight by overeating carbs. It’s done by a process called de novo lipogenesis. But it’s not efficient. You burn off some of the calories in the process.

Another related term often cited by HCLF folks is “dietary-induced thermogenesis” (also called the thermic effect of food). This refers to the fact that each macronutrient requires a different amount of calories to digest.

Protein has the highest thermic effect of food. But carbs still have a much higher thermic effect of food than fat.

So if your diet is focused on carbs and/or protein, rather than fat, you can eat more calories without having excess calories left over for your body to turn into fat.

Why Some People Gain Weight on an HCLF Vegan Diet Anyway

Pretty much any diet eaten in excess can cause weight gain. There are still plenty of calories in fruit and starches, and your body can turn them into fat if you eat too much.

Several high-profile influencers who promote an HCLF vegan diet in recent years have promoted the idea of eating very high amounts of calories (3,000+ per day). (This is suggested in the name 30 Bananas a Day in itself.) This has led many followers of this advice to gain weight on the diet.

You should probably not be eating 3,000+ calories per day unless you’re exercising vigorously for hours each day. Most people do not need that many calories.

If you’re reasonable with your portion sizes and daily caloric intake, you shouldn’t have problems with much weight gain as an HCLF vegan.

Yes, it’s possible to get fat on fruit and vegetables. In this video, Andrew Perlot shares his results of a 75-day experiment where he ate all the raw fruit and vegetables he wanted. He gained 15 pounds, including a good deal of fat.

If you’re switching from a Standard American Diet to an HCLF vegan diet, you should expect to need bigger portions to fill yourself up and fuel your body… And if you’re exercising a lot, you’ll need to eat more yet… But there’s no need to go overboard.

Is an HCLF Vegan Diet Unhealthy?

The basic idea of a low-fat vegan diet has a lot of potential to be healthy, as covered above. But it’s not always healthy for all people.

The following are several of the concerns that people commonly have about the healthfulness of an HCLF vegan diet.

Too Much Sugar and Carbs?

An HCLF vegan diet emphasizes healthy, unprocessed forms of carbs and sugar: Fruit, grains, beans, and veggies. But is it problematic to get too much sugar, even if it comes from healthy sources?

Well, it may depend on who you are. Some people seem to tolerate high loads of fruit sugar well. It makes them feel energized, and they easily stay trim.

But there are at least a few groups of people who may struggle with it.

While I’ve seen good things about diabetics switching to low-fat plant-based diets, I’d be hesitant to recommend eating big fruit/carb meals to people who deal with high blood sugar issues.

And there’s at least one other group of people who can see deleterious effects from eating a bunch of sugar in a single meal—people who are prone to acne.

HCLF Vegan Diets and Acne

If you look around the Internet, you can find both good and bad testimonials when it comes to how an HCLF vegan diet affects acne. For me, HCLF did not help my acne!

When you go vegan, you cut out dairy, which is one of the biggest dietary causes of acne… And you also increase your intake of veggies and plant foods, which can help improve your gut health and overall nutrition, which can also help with acne…

But another key cause of acne for a lot of people is high-glycemic carbohydrates. This can include high-sugar fruits like bananas and dates, as well as white potatoes, cereal, and pasta.

When you switch to a high-carb vegan diet, you’re typically adding in a bunch of these high-glycemic foods that can actually cause acne. And I experienced this effect myself.

If you have acne on an HCLF vegan diet, I really recommend cutting out most of the sugars and high-GI carbs like bananas, dates, and cereal. Switch to low-GI carbs like barley, beans, and oatmeal. For me, it really helps.

And if you want more tips on diet and acne, you really need to read my post on how I cleared up my acne. It seriously took me years of studying an experimenting on myself to learn what I share in that post!

Potential for Deficiencies on a Low-Fat Vegan Diet

The media loves to run with stories of vegans who become deficient in some nutrient and get sick. But there are some nutrients to be aware of on vegan diets, and that includes HCLF diets.

Vitamin B12: This is the one everyone agrees on. Your body can recycle its B12 stores for a while, but if you’re doing a vegan diet long term, you need to supplement with B12.

DHA and EPA (Omega 3): DHA and EPA are the forms of omega-3 fatty acids that non-vegans often take fish oil to get. But vegans don’t eat fish oil. So we can take supplements of DHA/EPA that come from algae.

Note: Some people think it’s enough just to eat chia or flaxseed for their omega-3s. While chia and flax are great foods to add to your diet, I’d still recommend a DHA/EHA supplement. The omega-3 in chia and flax is not in the final, usable forms (DHA and EPA), so your body still needs to convert it, which is not a very efficient process.

Vitamin D: Most people (not just vegans) fail to get enough vitamin D, and this is especially true if you live in northern climates that don’t have as much sunshine. And if you’re vegan, you’re not getting vitamin D from milk. So take a vitamin D supplement.

Last year, I was pumped to finally find Future Kind’s vegan multivitamin, which contains precisely these 3 ingredients (vitamin D, B12, and DHA/EPA), and nothing else. In my full review post, I explain why it’s the best vegan multivitamin by far.

One more nutrient to supplement? Zinc. Vegans often have lower levels of zinc. Like I hinted above, if you’re struggling with acne, a zinc supplement can be a good idea (here’s the one I take). But if you’d rather not add another supplement, you can also just look through a list of vegan foods containing zinc.

Is Macronutrient Ratio Really What Makes a Diet healthy?

Some authors criticize the focus of so-called “high-carb low-fat” vegans for focusing too much on a macronutrient ratio rather than on the quality of food and whether the food is processed.

Influential raw vegan author Dr. Douglas Graham named his book The 80/10/10 Diet after the macronutrient ratio: 80% of calories from carbs, 10% from protein, 10% from fat.

Research scientist and author T. Colin Campbell, in his book The China Study, similarly emphasizes an 80/10/10 macronutrient ratio as being a benchmark when looking at what qualifies as a low-fat vegan diet for health purposes.

But other authors who promote plant-based diets for health reasons argue it’s better to include more fats if they’re from unprocessed sources like nuts and avocado.

Here is a study showing that nut consumption was associated with a longer lifespan. Similarly, avocado has been found to have antioxidants with neuroprotective effects, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.

These studies suggest that it may not be the macronutrient ratio that’s key for health—you just need to focus your diet on unprocessed plant foods, whether high or low in fat.

I’ll discuss this more below under “My Personal Experience: Why I Quit Eating ‘High-Carb.'”

Not Enough Focus on Vegetables?

In most versions of the starch-based diet and the fruitarian diet, vegetables are a bit of an afterthought. The focus is on starches or fruit, respectively.

Part of this is due to the fact that non-starchy vegetables don’t contain many calories. So you can’t really fill-up on them. They’re always going to need to be accompanied by something else.

But vegetables are the healthiest food group out there. Even paleo and keto authors, who disagree with vegans on so many subjects, can agree that vegetables are a key part of a healthy diet.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who promotes a “Nutritarian diet,” defines healthiness in food as Nutrients divided by Calories (N/C). With that formula, non-starchy vegetables clearly win as the healthiest food group, with dark leafy greens leading the pack. Accordingly, vegetables are the big base of Dr. Fuhrman’s food pyramid.

If you watch Youtube videos from people eating an HCLF vegan diet, you’ll often see smoothies that are just bananas, dates, maybe cocoa powder or cinnamon, and water. What about the greens?

(Not to mention, bananas and dates are far less rich in healthy antioxidants compared to other fruits, such as berries, plums, or even apples. So you’re also missing out on nutrients by choosing bananas and dates as your go-to fruits.)

In promoting a starch-based diet, Dr. McDougall occasionally mentions a diet where you fill half of your plate with vegetables—but that’s just the “McDougall Diet for Maximum Weight Loss.” The standard McDougall diet suggests a smaller intake of green and yellow vegetables.

You can certainly eat a lot of vegetables on an HCLF vegan diet if you choose to, but it’s not often seen as central to the diet. And this means that, often, HCLF diets are less nutrient-dense compared to vegan diets focused more on vegetables.

Not an Optimal Amount of Protein?

Proponents of high-carb vegan diets emphasize that almost nobody in the U.S. gets sick from protein deficiency (kwashiorkor) due to an unbalanced diet. If you eat enough calories, you’ll get enough protein, they say—even with only 5 or 10% of your calories from protein.

But not getting sick from protein deficiency doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the optimal amount of protein for optimal health.

Here’s a blog post from Virginia Messina, a vegan dietitian, about this subject. She warns of some vegans not getting enough lysine, which is a specific amino acid. (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.)

Messina’s recommendation is to make sure you eat plenty of beans to get enough lysine and enough protein. It sounds like she would have critical things to say of the fruitarian diets that exclude beans (and grains!) completely.

Andrew Perlot, who has long promoted a raw vegan (fruitarian) diet has actually evolved his recommendation over the years to include sprouted lentils for the protein. He said adding more protein to his HCLF vegan diet has helped his athletic performance and ability to build muscle.

So if you’re eating an HCLF vegan diet, you should consider including at least occasional meals with beans! (And maybe frequent meals with beans!)

12 HCLF Vegan Meal and Snack examples

Here are 12 common meals eaten by high-carb low-fat vegans. Some of these will make good snacks, too—just eat a smaller amount!

  1. Fruit smoothies. The main ingredient is usually bananas. You can also add other fruit, greens, and maybe cocoa, vanilla, or cinnamon. Blend it up with water or plant-based milk. It’s sweet and delicious, made from whole plant foods. If you’re doing the fruitarian thing, you can make it a massive smoothie and take your time sipping it.
  2. Mashed potatoes. Commonly you’ll boil the potatoes, then mash them up. Add a little plant-based milk. No butter or oil needed. Cook some corn or peas to go with it, maybe another side of vegetables. Hearty comfort food—high carb and low fat!
  3. Baked fries. You can slice up your own potatoes at home into fries. Get a non-stick silicone baking sheet or parchment paper so they don’t stick to the metal baking tray. (Don’t use oil if you want to keep it HCLF.) Dipping them in normal ketchup, BBQ sauce, or whatever is fine!
  4. Watermelon. Just slice a watermelon in half and start scooping it out with a spoon. You can eat it directly like that, blend it in a blender, or cut it into cubes or slices. Fruitarians will often go ahead and eat a whole watermelon half. But some people get some discomfort (“melon belly”) from that. Eating a smaller portion may suit you better.
  5. Low-Fat Vegan Mac-n-Cheese. My simple approach: First, get some normal pasta or whole wheat pasta. After you boil it and drain the water, add at least a few tablespoons of nutritional yeast, some salt and pepper, maybe some garlic powder or other seasonings, and a dash of plant-milk. Add more nutritional yeast to taste. Or you can look up more fine-tuned recipes like this one.
  6. Rice and beans. This is a classic vegan staple, and it’s easy to prepare in a low-fat way. Most bean-and-rice recipes you find online will qualify. Just be careful not to add too much avocado, oil, or fat-rich vegan cheese (but you can add a little if you like).
  7. Banana Ice Cream. Similar to #1 above in ingredients, but you peel and freeze the bananas beforehand. So it’s frozen bananas, plant-milk, and then some other fruits, greens, or seasonings for flavor. Use less plant-milk than in a smoothie, so it comes out thicker, like soft-serve ice cream. (You can also use food processors, juicers, and other tools to prepare this differently.)
  8. Baked Potatoes. Simple. Affordable. You can season it a bunch of different ways. Just don’t add a bunch of oils or high-fat toppings—keep it focused on the carbs.
  9. Dates. Dates can provide an awesome little sugar/carb boost anytime, so they make a great snack. Or you could have a whole meal of them if you like. One tip from Dr. Greger of NutritionFacts.org is to put Medjool dates in the freezer. They become like a cold, chewy, caramel snack. Delicious.
  10. Pancakes. (Or Waffles.) A classic comfort food. Wheat is carbs, and syrup is carbs. Just be careful if you’re cooking the pancakes in oil—try to minimize how much you add. Here’s a simple recipe for vegan pancakes from Potato Strong.
  11. A Big Salad. Lots of greens, probably some fruit, maybe some beans. You might try making some homemade salad dressing from healthy foods like cashews, oranges, and avocado. Just make sure the fat content doesn’t jump too high if you want to keep it HCLF.
  12. Corn on the cob. Another classic comfort food. You can boil it or even cook it over a campfire. As long as you don’t add butter, it’s low-fat and vegan. This is great to add to a meal with the mashed potatoes or low-fat vegan mac-n-cheese mentioned above.

How Hard Is It to Stick to an HCLF Vegan Diet?

The difficulty of sticking to any diet is a very subjective matter. For some people, going vegan already feels difficult by itself, maybe because they’re surrounded by non-vegans who don’t understand and are always criticizing them.

Other people might even be dating or living with other health-conscious vegans. For that person, sticking to HCLF vegan could be pretty easy.

Generally speaking, it’s not wise to switch to a diet that you don’t feel like you can sustain for the rest of your life. This is why some people refer to eating plant-based as a lifestyle, not a diet: You’re intended to hopefully stay on it for your whole life.

Personally, I found that when I’m eating at home and preparing my own food, being an HCLF vegan is easy enough. There are plenty of great meals and recipes to eat. But it’s harder when you’re trying to eat out or eat with friends who aren’t on the same page.

My Personal Experience: Why I Quit Eating “High-Carb”

I ate a high-carb low-fat vegan diet quite strictly for about two years. But I eventually started easing up on it. Now I just eat more of a general whole-food plant-based diet, including more fats.

My diet is still relatively high in carbs, probably around 60 or 70% of calories from carbs (I haven’t tracked them in a while). But here are the four reasons I didn’t stick to my HCLF diet for longer:

1. Healthy fats.

Looking at the research, I really believe nuts and avocado are healthy foods. And I don’t see any need to restrict them.

I think the deleterious effects of high-fat diets are based on eating too much saturated fat from animal products and too much omega-6 fat from vegetable oils. Fats from whole plant foods seem healthy from what I’ve seen.

(However, if you’re following a strict program like Dr. Dean Ornish’s or Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr.’s to actually reverse your heart disease, you may need to stay low-fat for best results.)

I recently found this video where Mic the Video explains why he doesn’t quite define himself as a “high-carb vegan” anymore—nuts being a big reason—and I feel I’m in the same boat as him.

2. Sugar and acne.

It took me a long time to troubleshoot my acne. Gradually, I found that sugar and high-GI carbs were one of the biggest causes of my breakouts.

I found that even eating two bananas or a couple of bowls of shredded wheat caused breakouts for me. I think it has to do with the insulin response causing activation of mTORC1, which is the main driver of acne according to research.

Ray from MyAcneCoach (not a vegan) recommends only eating half a banana at a time. This will be less likely to spike your blood sugar and cause breakouts.

And I found from experience that eating more nuts did not give me breakouts. Even adding some oils back into my diet did not cause breakouts. For me, fats seem better for my skin than sugar.

If you struggle with acne, I seriously recommend reading my blog post on how to clear up acne as a vegan. I share everything I’ve learned after years of studying, investing in the best education, and then actually testing everything on myself.

3. Protein for muscle Synthesis.

I believe it’s possible to be healthy with only 10% of your calories from protein, as is common on HCLF vegan diets. And I know it’s possible to build muscle on an HCLF diet, too… But it may not be optimal or most effective.

Common advice for building muscle is to eat at least 0.8 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. A strictly HCLF diet made it very hard for me to achieve that ratio—even when I added more beans.

So I started adding more tofu, tempeh, and protein powder to my diet. From those foods, tofu also contains quite a bit of fat—so my carb ratio got knocked even lower from that.

4. Wanting to relax my diet a bit.

Going vegan is already hard for some people socially. But going vegan and consistently avoiding oil is a whole other level. Everybody cooks with vegetable oil! It’s in everything.

I still try to keep my oil consumption on the low end. I don’t usually cook with oil myself. But I decided not to limit myself from eating oily foods at restaurants or at friends’ houses anymore.

I figure as long as I’m 95% of the way to a healthy diet, I’m doing far better than the average person, and I’m going to be just fine if I eat some foods containing oil, particularly when I’m out.

Other Vegan Diets to Explore If HCLF Isn’t For You

There are many ways to be vegan. If HCLF seems too strict or if you try it and it doesn’t work well with your body or your lifestyle, you can still try other types of veganism.

You can try emphasizing certain foods or cutting out other foods. Then see how enjoyable you find the diet to be and see how it affects you.

I’ve changed my diet around a bunch of times based on my goals at the time and just trying different things. Doing that has allowed me to clear up my acne and learn a lot about my body and how it deals with different foods.

But you can also just be a plain old vegan.

You don’t necessarily have to eat a specific balance of nutrients or food groups as a vegan. There are plenty of reasons to be vegan without needing to further specify exactly what your diet is. So do what seems right for you!

Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey

1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).

2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.

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