In this article, we’re going to go over what you need to know about how to use the fats you put on your plate for your aesthetic goals. It’s common sense, bad fats lead to bad health. But what we don’t often hear too much about… what about eating fat for your fitness goals? How much fat should you cut from your diet if you’re trying to cut body fat? Is Keto best? How is a high or low fat diet going to impact your performance in the gym if you’re looking to gain more muscle faster? We’ll cover the basics of what you need to know about dietary fat in general, then get goal-specific.
Fat is a non-negotiable factor in a healthy diet.
Fat must be there in a minimum of 20% of your total calories (for most people) to avoid serious health concerns. Beyond that, “essential fatty acids” are required to be included in your diet because these compounds cannot be synthesized. Meaning, we lack the needed enzymes required to produce them. These essential fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 concentrations in your diet must be maintained in higher amounts to help prevent metabolic syndrome. Which is a collection of conditions that can lead to heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.
The healthiest sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Chia seeds
- Firm Tofu
- Flaxseeds (ground and oil form)
- Walnuts (whole and oil form)
- Brazil nuts
- Pine nuts
- Sesame oil
- Sunflower seeds (whole and oil form)
However, in Western societies, our ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 is far from ideal. Most of this is due to overconsumption of unhealthy sources of omega-6 in the form of processed seed oils, grains, and grain-fed animal products. Leaving the ratio at around a 10:1 omega-6 to 3. But by leaning on the listed healthier sources of omega-3s plus, wild caught fatty fish and grass-fed beef and dairy, we can achieve a ratio closer to the ideal 1:1.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) are also incredibly helpful for health as well as body fat composition. Multiple studies show that simply having a higher ratio of MUFAs in one’s diet will not only improve overall health, but also improve the waistline. Even when calorie intake is unchanged or at the same amount as other diets studied, those with high MUFA intake saw body fat loss.
The healthiest sources of MUFAs are:
- Olives (whole and oil form)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
The absolute worst fats to include in your diet are trans fats. Though these fats are naturally occurring, specifically in meat and milk products, though it’s in a lesser amount they should be limited as part of a heart healthy diet. Specifically in comparison with man-made fats, a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats wreck cholesterol levels, and for body composition improvement, we do want healthy cholesterol in high amounts in our blood stream for the sake of hormone production. In the most simplistic explanation, cholesterol is the precursor for the hormones within us such as progesterone, androgens, and estrogens among others that when in healthy ratios fuel improvements in body composition. Similarly, some saturated fats are another form to closely watch in your diet. There are saturated fats like palmitate which can be found in animal products that cause insulin resistance. However there are important saturated fats like oleate which can be found in plant sources that improve insulin sensitivity. Should you cut all animal products to speed up muscle growth and fat loss? If you want to. But it’s not required for best results for most people so long as healthy plant fat sources remain in heavy rotation. But if you want to go the extra mile for the sake of your heart health, keep your total grams of saturated fats below 6% of your total calories for the day. On a 2,000 calorie a day diet, that’s 13g or less. Many online food trackers will show you your saturated fat intake.
Most people commonly remember that the most unhealthy fats are solid at room temperature, such as fats from animals, and processed fats like shortening and margarine. But coconut oil can also be solid at room temp, so understanding the source origin makes the difference.
Another key note about coconut oil, is to pay attention to the amount of processing it goes through before you consume it. For the sake of cholesterol levels specifically, you want to consume coconut oil that has the most amount of medium length triglycerides (MCTs) because they bypass the lymphatic system and go right to the liver for energy production. Reach for expeller pressed, unrefined, or virgin coconut oil.
What about supplementation to improve healthy fat ratios in our diet? Is it worth it?That depends mostly on what your preferred food choices are most commonly. If you’re relatively healthy and most of your fat comes from the healthiest plant food sources, you might not need consistent additional supplementation to balance your ratios of fat sources.
But for those who don’t lean as heavily on whole food healthy fats on a daily basis and want to more quickly improve body composition, supplementation can be very valuable. Especially for those with thyroid issues (hypo and hyper) as omega-3 supplementation and in diets will improve hormone balance, specifically for thyroid health.
Omega-3s are a mix compound of ALA, DHA, and EPA. ALA is converted to EPA, which is converted to DHA. And though plant-based sources are high in ALAs, our body doesn’t easily convert it to the sub forms. The body more easily gets EPA and DHA from marine animal and algae. Fish oil is the most commonly known supplement for omega-3s. But it’s the algae that the fish eat that gives them that richness of EPA and DHA. So for those who do rely on plant sources exclusively, vegan omega-3s (based in algae) are very important for supplementation.
When it comes to being observant of your food quality, the lower on the food chain you can eat the better, with regards to the toxin load these higher chain fish contain. Herring and mackerel are lower on the food chain and will absorb fewer environmental toxins. Krill oil or algae oil are much safer. Cod liver should be avoided.
EPA and DHA have been tested and shown to support muscle mass growth as well by promoting better blood flow, insulin function, performance and lean tissue synthesis.
Conjugated linoleic acids (CLA) is commonly promoted for fat loss assistance. And with good reason. Even when tested on postmenopausal women, compared to those in the study group given olive oil, CLA supplementation resulted in less body fat mass and even less lower body fat mass after 16 weeks.
Fat loss in the body can be a slow process, relying on healthy fat sources not only in speeding up the release and conversion of stored fat to energy but reducing the other health complications that come from having too much fat in the blood stream. These free fatty acids lead to inflammation and oxidative stress, meaning, health complications and potentially slower results. The more fat we have in our blood stream, the greater the challenge for the body to clear out and use blood sugars which is the basis of insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the key that opens the door for sugar in the blood to be taken into the tissue where is will be used for energy. The more fat within the muscle, the slower that lock and key system works.
As adults, the number of fat cells in our body remains stagnant. Whether you’re lean with a small amount of fat in those cells, or you’re obese with a significantly greater amount of fat in those cells. However, there’s a limit to what each fat cell can hold. At some point, there’s what’s called the “spillover effect” where fat overflows the cells and circulates back into the blood stream leading to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. A lean person on an especially high fat diet can have just as much free floating fat in their blood as someone experiencing the spillover effect.
So how do those healthy fats consumed improve body composition? Flavonoid phytonutrients found in nuts increase thermogenesis and fat oxidation. In fact, many research studies have found that those consuming a calorie surplus from nuts by comparison to their regular diet saw either minimal weight gain over months or even fat loss. And thankfully, nut butters prove to have the same effect. Peanut butter addicts, rejoice!
One interesting study compared the satiety levels of people consuming almost identical fruit and fat smoothies. First, the group had walnuts in their smoothie. Then, without being informed, their smoothie was altered to have walnut flavoring and safflower oil to allow the smoothies to taste exactly the same. Realistically, we might attribute fat loss by adding nuts to the diet to the fiber content, or the additional volume of food or calorie content to provide that satiety. BUT what they ended up discovering is once those smoothies were switched out, after day one of the study, by day for the research group found that the participants noticed a drop in satiety levels with the placebo smoothie.
Does that then mean that very low carb diets like keto are the best approach for rapid fat loss, especially for obese individuals? Not according to research. In fact, metabolic disadvantage was demonstrated by those doing a particular study, a study which aimed to prove the superiority of keto diets. What they found was the rapid results of scale weight loss was misleading. They discovered that lowering fat intake rather than carb intake showed at 80% greater amount of body fat compared to the study group who cut the same number of total calories a day but from carbs. Though the low carb group saw more overall pounds come off, a significant amount of it was lean weight. Water and protein loss. Further studies show that while yes, there’s a rise in fat oxidation, that doesn’t equate to fat mass reduction. Especially when there is a consistent intake of dietary fats. And due to the fact that healthy plant fats often accompany more carbs, they aren’t favored in most keto diets.
What’s even more interesting is that our body has fat-burning fat cells, known as brown fat. In contrast, most of our body fat is made up of white fat cells, found in connective tissue, beneath the skin, and in the abdominal cavity. But brown fat is found mostly in the posterior upper back and neck, and can be found in other areas too. These fat cells aid in thermogenesis. White cells convert excess glucose from our food into triglycerides that signal satiety and energy balance. White fat cells can transform and take on characteristics of brown fat cells, making them beige or sometimes called “brite” for brown+white. This change happens under various cues by the body such as prolonged very low temperatures (notedly weeks of 2 hour exposure to temperatures just above the shivering point), increase of dietary flavonoids, and exercise. Brown fat cells are ideal as well because of their impact on increasing insulin sensitivity.
For those looking to increase lean mass, specifically “lean bulking”, knowing how to use fats the right way can definitely improve your muscle gain progress. Again, insulin sensitivity is vital for muscle growth. This is why many people choose to have low fat pre and post workout meals. Minimizing the amount of fat in the blood stream helps shuttle more glucose into the muscle tissue to power heavier lifts and recover more quickly post workout. More research on keto diets have proven their ergolytic effects on athletes and non-athlete exercisers. They notice decrease in strength and increase in perceived effort in their training. Beyond that, comparing two groups of people doing the same strength training plan, the group on the keto diet actually lost muscle, while those on a non keto diet gained in this short 8-week study.
Since fats digest and break down more slowly, it’s a great idea to blunt the catabolic effect of your overnight fast by having some fats before bed.
In terms of improving insulin sensitivity, which is needed for any health or body composition goal, plant based diets have proved to be incredibly effective. But does eating plant based mean going strictly vegan? Absolutely doesn’t have to be. Thanks to the prevalence of processed junk foods in our society, one doesn’t even have to be a whole food, plant-based vegan. Being plant based means that one’s diet is heavily reliant on plant foods. Plant based proteins (such as legumes and soy), plant based fats (like avocado and nuts), and plant based carb sources.
Animal fats aren’t all horrible either. For example, eggs, though high in saturated fat, roughly 39%, but 43% of the fat is monounsaturated and 4% polyunsaturated. Poly- like MUFAs are another healthy fat source.
But even if you do prefer a keto or Paleo approach, adding more whole food plants to your daily life intake drastically reduces inflammation markers, and elevates circulations of fat burning enzymes. To eat plant based, really just means to eat MORE plants as the foundation of your diet. Whether you eat animal products multiple times a day, a few times a month, or eating a 100% vegan diet. Plant based fats improve body composition, especially with regard to reducing body fat and blunting fat gain, even in a hyper-caloric state. Since research has shown that those who eat vegan diets have less fat within the muscle tissue (compared to omnivores of the same weight) it may be beneficial for many people to even incorporate days in their week were they eat strictly vegan. This can be more easily done on days where your protein intake may be lower, such as a rest day.
So what’s the best plan for your goals? Which ever diet (within reason) makes you feel the best. There are people who either by running tests or just personal experimentation find some diets make them feel worse, even worsening preexisting health conditions. Vegan or vegetarian diets just won’t work for some people. That could be due to particular dietary requirements or personal preference. You shouldn’t have to eat a long-term diet style you hate just for the sake of your goals. Just as too little fat in a diet can cause hormone and brain health problems, too much dietary fat can harm the health of many people, especially those with severe heart conditions. The best diet is the one that works for you from a health AND aesthetic perspective.
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