One of the biggest questions athletes ask when I give recommendations is...what about the fat?
That’s because when it comes to building muscle and strength along with keeping energy for brain function and physical activity, carbs and protein are king. So, they dominate the nutrition conversation when you’re talking about athletes and weightlifters.
But what about the fat? Is it even important? Why do we even need it? And should I be eating a certain amount?
Let me just tell you now. You shouldn’t be eating so much that you’re in ketosis. Anddddd I’ll just leave that there :)
Why Fats are Important
That said, it’s a mistake to strive for a diet that’s too low in fat. That’s because fats have SO many important functions in the body including:
Keeping the immune system strong
Protecting your internal organs
Absorption of certain vitamins
Production of testosterone
If you’ve ever gone a long time without eating or not eating enough, either due to an extreme diet change or other reason, and you noticed that you got sick easily or just didn’t feel “right” it’s because you weren’t giving your body enough fat (and probably protein) to fight off illness.
If you’re an athlete, eating enough fat to maintain your essential fat stores is critical for the protection of your organs, especially in contact sports where injury is more likely to happen.
And finally, believe it or not, fats also help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Meaning, if you’re eating a salad with kale, carrots and mushrooms, you’ll absorb a lot more of the vitamins in these vegetables if you have something like avocado chunks or some sort of oil-based dressing like olive oil or a vinaigrette drizzled on top. Who would have thought fat would make your salad better for you, amirite?
Now...deep sigh...I have to talk about a high-fat diet.
The (In)famous High-Fat Diet
Now, one of the cases for a high-fat diet is that it helps you build more muscle by raising your testosterone, but this is sooooo frustratingly misleading! Yes, a high-fat diet has the potential to raise your testosterone, but it’s not going to be enough of an increase for significant muscle gain.
There is also not a single, long-term study with trained athletes that has shown an increase in performance benefits on a ketogenic diet.
I will say, one study has shown that men getting 41% of daily calories from fat had 13% more testosterone than men getting just 18% of daily calories from fat, which would be defined as the more common high-carb, high-protein diet. Other studies have shown similar results.
But hold on now before you start joining the masses in chowing down on sticks of butter and buying the store out of their bacon. Several large studies have shown that even though there was an increase in testosterone, that didn’t translate to a bigger increase in muscle growth.
Basically, when the muscle on the high-fat group was compared to guys eating a high protein, high carb diet, there were no significant differences.
So, one very important thing I want all of you to remember is that, yes, testosterone is a muscle-building hormone, but not only does it need to increase to a certain amount for you to see noticeable gains (amounts a high-fat diet alone cannot provide), there are other factors also at play.
If your diet is high in fat, you’re not going to be eating enough carbs by default. And the fact is, studies show that carbs help you lift more weight in the gym and lower muscle breakdown.
Finally, carbohydrates increase your insulin and insulin (despite the horrible and likely false things you've heard about it) has the powerful ability to prevent muscle breakdown, especially after exercise.
What matters at the end of the day is that you are fueling your body enough to be able to lift to a high enough quality and power to drive those gains. In order to do that, you need more carbs and protein than a high-fat diet can give you.
How Much Fat Should I Be Eating?
So what about amount?
If you’re not in a bulk or cut right now, 0.8 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight is my recommendation for general needs.
So, I’m 120 pounds and a regular weightlifter. That means my allowance would be 36 grams a day (your weight in pounds / 2.2 * 0.8). If that sounds low to you, remember that athletes and people who lift weights benefit from prioritizing carbs and protein as the main macronutrients in their diet.
As mentioned, when fat is the main component (like with the keto diet) your strength can suffer. Since carbs spare muscles from breakdown and give a more available source of fuel than fats when they aren’t available, your body will use energy by breaking down your muscles...yikes.
Not only does your strength suffer as an athlete, but your brain function can as well, which is especially a bummer for athletes who need optimal brain function for reaction time, memory of plays and overall game playing sharpness. Bonus brain fuel is needed for college athletes who also have school to excel in if they want to remain on the team!
If you’re neither an athlete nor a weightlifter and just an average Joe or Jane living your best life, the general recommendation is to get about 20–35% of your calories from fat.
If you’re into endurance as your exercise of choice (such as long runs or cycling) then you’ll want to stay on the low end of this range and displace those calories with more carbs for lasting fuel during these activities.
The Bottom Line?
Fat is a healthy and necessary part of a diet, especially for weightlifters and athletes. Just make sure that you’re eating them in amounts that allow for plenty of carbs and protein as well. Also, make sure you consider healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado and plant oils (NOT coconut).
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.