“Eat fat and get fat.”
That’s what mainstream diet “gurus” used to say not so long ago, back when low-fat diets reigned and low-fat foods crowded the shelves.
Much to obesity researchers’ dismay, though, the war on fat didn’t stop us from getting fatter and fatter.
And so the quest for a “better way” continued.
Well, fast forward to today and many people will tell you the hunt is over.
We finally understand the human metabolism well enough to say that the previous generation of scientists had it all wrong. Backward, actually.
“Eat fat and burn fat,” we’re now told.
This latest “revelation” has spread through the health and fitness space like chain lightning, giving rise to its own cottage industry of high-fat diets, cookbooks, and food products and supplements.
Unfortunately, though, this advice is just as flawed as its antithesis. In fact, and ironically, the exact opposite happens when you eat fat.
When you eat fat, you gain fat. But that doesn’t mean it makes you fat.
I know that sounds cryptic, but don’t worry–by the end of this article, it will all make sense.
You’ll know exactly how much fat you should consume per day, what types of fat your body needs and why, what types of foods are best, and more.
So, let’s start with a clear definition of terms and then move on to diet composition.
There are two different types of fat found in food:
Triglycerides comprise the bulk of our daily fat intake and are found in a wide variety of foods ranging from dairy to nuts, seeds, meat, and more.
Fats can be in liquid (unsaturated) or solid (saturated) and they help maintain health in many ways: they help you absorb vitamins, they are used to create various hormones, they keep your skin and hair healthy, and much more.
Cholesterol is scarcer in our diets and is found in foods like eggs, liver, some fish, butter, and more.
It’s a waxy substance present in all cells of the body, and it’s used to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest your food.
Several decades ago, it was believed that foods that contained cholesterol, like eggs and meat, increased the risk of heart disease. We now know it’s not that simple.
One of the reasons for these subtleties is foods that contain cholesterol also often contain saturated fat, which can increase the risk of heart disease (which we’ll learn more about soon).
Another reason has to do with how cholesterol travels throughout your body.
It’s delivered to cells by molecules known as lipoproteins, which are made out of fat and proteins. There are two kinds of lipoproteins:
When people talk of “bad” cholesterol, they’re referring to LDL.
Research shows that high levels of LDL in your blood can lead to an accumulation in your arteries, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Here’s what this looks like:
HDL is often thought of as the “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your liver, where it is removed from the body.
So, now that you have the 50,000-foot view of dietary fat, let’s zoom in on the type we eat the most of and thus are most concerned with: triglycerides.
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Saturated fat is found in foods like meat, dairy products, eggs, coconut oil, bacon fat, and lard.
If a fat is solid at room temperature, it’s a saturated fat.
The long-held belief that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease has been challenged by recent research, which has been a boon to the fad diet industry, not to mention the meat and dairy industries (we’ve seen a veritable renaissance of meat and dairy consumption).
These scientists maintain that there is a strong association between high intake of saturated fatty acids and heart disease and that we should follow the generally accepted dietary guidelines for saturated fat intake (less than 10% of daily calories) until we know more.
Given the research currently available, I don’t think we can safely say that we can eat all the saturated fats we want without any health consequences.
And I’d rather “play it safe” and wait for further research before joining in the saturated fat orgy.
Unsaturated fat is found in foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and fish. If a fat is liquid, it’s unsaturated fat.
There are two distinct types of unsaturated fats:
Monounsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and starts to solidify when it’s cooled.
Foods high in monounsaturated fat include canola, olive, and peanut oil, and avocado.
Polyunsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and when cooled.
Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include safflower, sesame, and sunflower seeds, corn, and many nuts and their oils.
Unlike saturated fat, there’s no controversy over monounsaturated fat.
There’s evidence that it can reduce the risk of heart disease, and it’s believed to be responsible for some of the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, which involvings eating a lot of olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fat, on the other hand, isn’t as cut-and-dried.
The two primary polyunsaturated fats are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linolenic acid (LA).
ALA and LA are the only types of fat that we must obtain from our diets because they are essential to our health and our bodies can’t produce them, which is why they’re referred to as essential fatty acids.
That is, you could completely remove saturated and monounsaturated fat from your diet and survive, but if you were to eliminate ALA or LA, you would eventually die.
(Granted, this would be incredibly hard to do because even the worst of diets provides sufficient ALA and LA to prevent a true deficiency.)
Now, the controversy with polyunsaturated fat is centered on the ratio between ALA (omega-3) and LA (omega-6) intake.
The number of effects these two substances have in the body is enormous, and the chemistry is complex, but here’s what you need to know for the purpose of this article:
EPA and DHA are also found in high amounts in fatty fish. When you take a fish oil supplement, you’re providing your body with EPA/DHA.
A massive amount of research has been done on EPA and DHA, and it appears that they bestow many, if not all, of the health benefits generally associated with ALA.
These benefits include…
It’s an over-simplification to say that the effects of LA (omega-6) are generally “bad,” and effects of ALA (omega-3) are generally “good,” but it’s more accurate than inaccurate.
And that’s why it has been hypothesized that a diet too high in omega-6 and too low in omega-3 fatty acids can cause a whole host of health problems.
Newer research casts doubt on this, though.
There’s no question that inadequate omega-3 intake is bad for your health, but ironically, studies have found that increasing omega-6 intake can decrease the risk of heart disease, not increase it.
Thus, scientists suspect that the absolute amount of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is more important than the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3. This is why a considerable amount of work is being done to boost the omega-3 content of various foods like eggs and meat.
The bottom line is if your diet is even halfway sensible, you’re getting enough omega-6 fatty acids. You may not be getting enough omega-3s (and EPA and DHA in particular), though.
This is less likely if your diet provides a fair amount of ALA, however, because it’s converted into EPA, which can then be converted into DHA.
The problem with this, however, is the process whereby ALA is converted into EPA is quite inefficient (and conversion into DHA is even worse) and impacted by the amount of LA in your diet (a high-LA diet decreases conversion rates).
This is why relying on ALA as your sole source of omega-3 fatty acids may result in an EPA/DHA deficiency, and why it’s smart to include fatty fish or a fish oil supplement in your diet.
Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fat that occurs naturally in some meat and dairy foods, and is manufactured industrially by infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen.
The result is a “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil,” which you’ll find in many processed foods because it increases shelf life.
I’m not one for dietary absolutism, but there’s little argument at this point that artificial trans fats should be eliminated entirely from our diets.
To quote a review conducted by scientists from Harvard:
“TFA [trans-fatty acid] consumption causes metabolic dysfunction: it adversely affects circulating lipid levels, triggers systemic inflammation, induces endothelial dysfunction, and, according to some studies, increases visceral adiposity, body weight, and insulin resistance.
“Consistent with these adverse physiological effects, consumption of even small amounts of TFAs (2% of total energy intake) is consistently associated with a markedly increased incidence of coronary heart disease.”
(Interestingly, research also shows that naturally occurring trans fats aren’t nearly as harmful to our health as artificial.)
Now that we understand what dietary fat is and its different forms and physiological functions, let’s talk intake.
If you’ve done any other reading on the subject, you’re probably expecting a pat recommendation like “20 to 30% of daily calories with less than 10% coming from saturated fat.”
Well, the problem with a rule of thumb like that is it works fine for your average, sedentary person, but isn’t optimal for us fitness folk.
For example, I weigh about 190 pounds, and if I were the average, sedentary type, my body would burn about 2,000 calories per day.
Based on that, the “20 to 30% rule would provide 45 to 80 grams of fat per day, which is a reasonable range.
I exercise 6 days per week and have quite a bit of muscle, though, so my body burns about 3,000 calories per day.
Based on that, my recommended fat intake skyrockets to 65 to 115 grams per day, but does my body really need that much more fat because it’s muscular and I exercise regularly?
No, it doesn’t.
Eating that much fat wouldn’t be harmful to my health, of course, but it would limit the amount of carbohydrate I could eat. And generally speaking, the lower your carb intake is, the harder it’s going to be to build muscle and strength.
This is why I’m generally an advocate for eating enough fat to support overall health while maximizing carbohydrate intake, which precludes high-fat dieting (you only get so many calories per day, unfortunately).
The bottom line is if your body does well on a high- protein, high-carb diet, and low-/moderate-fat diet, it’s going to serve you best in your quest to build a great physique.
So, with that out of the way, let’s look at how much fat you should be eating.
If you’re to listen to some people, dietary fat is the key to losing body fat.
Eat large amounts of “healthy fat,” they say, and little carbohydrate, and you’ll lose weight.
In fact, a recent study conducted by scientists at the National Institutes of Health found that calorie for calorie, low-fat dieting is more effective for fat loss than low-carb.
This isn’t particularly surprising given the fact that carbs help preserve resistance training performance and decrease muscle breakdown rates, mainly through replenishing glycogen stores and elevating insulin levels.
All this is why I recommend a high-protein, high-carb “weight loss diet” that provides adequate fat for general health needs.
And how much fat is needed for general health, you ask?
Well, research shows that around 0.3 grams per pound of fat-free mass per day is adequate for maintaining health.
(And “fat-free mass” is everything in your body that isn’t fat, i.e., muscle, water, and bone.)
What types of fat you eat is also important.
As you know, you want to limit your saturated fat intake, avoid artificial trans fats, and favor monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, paying particular attention to your omega-3 intake.
Specifically, I recommend you get the majority of your dietary fat from monounsaturated fats, that you keep your saturated fat intake at or below 10% of daily calories, and that you attention to your EPA/DHA intake.
Regarding your EPA/DHA intake, 500 mg per day (combined) would be a bare minimum, but I recommend something closer to 2 grams per day because it confers a variety of health and performance benefits.
The easiest way to get there is to eat several servings per week of fatty fish like Alaskan salmon, Arctic char, or Atlantic mackerel, or take a fish oil supplement every day.
I really don’t like the taste of fatty fish, so I opt for supplementation. Here’s what I use:
Many people claim that a high-fat diet helps you build muscle faster by increasing testosterone levels.
This is only partially true.
Yes, a high-fat diet can increase testosterone levels, but no, it’s not going to help you build muscle faster.
There are several reasons for this.
A high-fat diet can increase testosterone levels…but not by enough to help you get bigger.
One study showed that men getting 41% of daily calories from fat had 13% more free testosterone than men getting just 18% of daily calories from fat. Another study conducted a decade earlier showed similar results.
That might sound good on paper, but research clearly shows it’s not nearly enough to move the muscle-building needle.
For example, a study conducted by researchers at McMaster University investigated if the acute hormonal changes that happen during weightlifting affect muscle and strength gains.
The subjects were young, resistance trained men, and they did 5 weightlifting workouts per week and followed a standard “bodybuilding” diet.
After 12 weeks, scientists found that exercise-induced spikes in anabolic hormones like testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 had no effect on overall muscle growth or strength gains.
That is, the size of the hormonal responses seen in the subjects varied widely but there was no significant difference in terms of muscle and strength gains.
Another study worth reviewing was conducted by researchers at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.
This involved manipulating the testosterone levels of 61 young, healthy men using a combination of testosterone and drugs to inhibit natural testosterone production.
After 20 weeks, scientists found there was a dose-dependent relationship between testosterone and leg strength and power (higher testosterone levels meant more strength and power)…
…but the effects weren’t significant until testosterone levels exceeded the top of the natural range by about 20 to 30% (about 1,200 ng/dL).
Now, this study does have an obvious limitation: the subjects weren’t exercising.
The strength and power gains would have been higher if subjects had been weightlifting, of course, but it’s telling nonetheless.
And just to lend further perspective on the matter, let’s review a bit of steroid research.
Scientists at Maastricht University published an extensive review of studies related to the use of anabolic steroids in 2004 and found the following:
Now, compare this to what you can achieve naturally and my point becomes clear:
Even when you blast your testosterone through the roof with drugs and add additional anabolic steroids on top, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to gain “shocking” amounts of muscle.
And if that’s the case with the sky-high testosterone levels that come with drug use, what does that tell us about small fluctuations that can occur within the physiological normal ranges?
It’s just not going to make much of a difference except in the most extreme cases of, let’s say, going from the absolute bottom of normal to the top.
So, similar to my recommendations for weight loss, I recommend that you eat a high-protein, high-carb, and moderate-fat diet when you’re trying to build muscle.
This allows you to fully take advantage of the significant muscle-building benefits of both protein and carbs, as opposed to chasing negligible changes in hormones.
In terms of an actual amount, 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight is my general recommendation.
Everything we discussed earlier on limiting saturated fats, favoring unsaturated fats, and ensuring your EPA/DHA intake is adequate applies.
Years ago, we were told to keep our dietary fat intake as low as possible.
While that may help control caloric intake, it’s not optimal for health.
Since then, the pendulum has swung hard in the other direction and now millions of people are eating more dietary fat than ever before, including saturated fat, by eating large amounts of foods like…
This too may be increasing the risk of disease and, unfortunately, without even providing any significant health or performance benefits.
I believe the most sensible advice is this:
We should eat at least enough dietary fat to support our health, and only raise it based on our goals, fitness, and preferences.
For example, most physically active people wanting to build muscle or lose fat are going to do best on a high-protein, high-carb, low-/moderate-fat diet.
There are exceptions, of course, but that is true far more often than not.
Sedentary people needing to lose weight, however, will probably do better with a high-protein, low-carb, high-fat diet (carbohydrate is primarily energetic, so if you don’t burn much energy, you don’t need much of it).
The key is tailoring your diet to your needs, and I hope this article helps you do that.