Some eat too much, others eat too little. How much fat should a lifter actually have? From what foods? Nine experts weigh in.
What are your “rules” when it comes to dietary fat for you and your clients?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a clinician it’s that individuality reigns supreme.
When it comes to fat, or any macronutrient for that matter, I’m looking to help my patients understand their unique reactions. Science can guide us, but research regresses everything to the mean. It’s a tool of averages and not a tool of individual reactions.
Off-the-shelf diets and protocols can be of use too, but in the end each individual will respond differently. I’m interested in helping my patients learn what works for them and what doesn’t.
When it comes to fat for health and weight loss it really comes down to understanding how it affects hunger, energy, and cravings or what I call HEC (pronounced “heck”). If including fat in a meal makes HEC stay in check for longer, then I want my patients to discover that. If eating fat results in HEC going out of check, that’s also extremely useful to understand.
When I start this process I like for my patients to separate their macros as much as possible. This means they’ll choose from a few categories; lean protein, fatty foods, fiber/water foods, and starchy/sugary foods. I instruct them to eat a base of protein and vegetables: an egg white veggie scramble, a piece of lean white fish and asparagus, chicken and broccoli etc.
I ask them to note how that meal impacts HEC. Then I have them add fat to the meal. To make this easy, I use the “1 tablespoon of fat is 10g of fat” rule. Does adding 2 tablespoons of avocado to the egg white scramble stabilize HEC and result in less calorie intake later? Does adding a tablespoon of butter to the asparagus and broccoli help or hurt HEC? This simple strategy immediately tells my patient how fat impacts them (this can be done for starch as well.)
Let’s face it, for some adding fat satisfies and stabilizes metabolic function, allowing them to feel full faster and for longer. This helps their food be more enjoyable and can result in them eating less overall. For others, adding fat can trigger cravings for other calorie-rich foods, may not satisfy them, and results in worse eating later and higher calorie loads for the day.
Depending on their reactions I can then advise on a lower fat or higher fat ratio on their macros. Perhaps fat as 20% of total intake or fat as 40% of total intake. Perhaps I even learn they could thrive with a keto approach.
This is a patient-first approach and saves me from my own bias and the uncertainties of research. It also gives the power to the patient to stop being a dieter and trend follower and start being a student of their own metabolism.
Let’s go back to the basics: Fat is important for vitamin absorption, brain function, energy, and also hair and skin health.
Getting the right amount and types into any diet can be tricky. Athletes often add too much, too little, or choose sources that aren’t beneficial for their specific goal.
You should be conscientious about adding essential fatty acids in your diet as your body can’t produce them itself or function without them. So when it comes to fat sources, my recommendation is to add Flameout (on Amazon) to your daily supplement intake – it’s great for inflammation, helps with recovery, and helpful for skin/hair/nail health.
Limit the amount of saturated fats in your diet by calculating how much you’re getting from meat and consider avoiding any additional sources since it can increase your LDL.
It’s easy to get carried away with fat and go overboard. For some reason, most people aren’t aware that there are 9 calories per gram of fat, as opposed to protein and carbs which contain 4 calories per gram. So just one tablespoon of oil has more calories than 5 ounces of chicken!
My favorite sources of fat are Flameout, MCT oil, avocado, and almond/peanut butter. The saturated fat in my diet comes from red meat and a little cream in my coffee.
It’s hard to give a recommended amount because everyone has individual needs, but as a baseline, start with about 40 grams of fat per day from various sources. Of course, if you’re doing a keto diet (no carbs) then that number would have to be higher, and if your diet is very high in carbs, consider lowering it.
Everyone is different and what works for one lifter often won’t work for the next. Try making small adjustments to your everyday nutrition in order to maintain your results and feel better during the process.
The USDA food pyramid should actually be inverted, minus the sugar aspect. That would make fat the foundation.
Sugar is best avoided, but fat, vegetables, and protein should make up the bulk of your diet. Keep in mind, fat contains 9 calories per serving as opposed to 4 calories in both carbs and protein, respectively. Fat is also less thermic than protein.
Fat plays a role in all sorts of bodily functions from heart health, joint health, immunity, and circulation; not to mention energy production and positive impact on insulin sensitivity. Its list of jobs is long, so fats play a much more prominent role in my diet now than it did 20 years ago while caught up in the low-fat diet craze.
As a 220 pound bodybuilder, my fat intake runs around 100 grams per day when my goal isn’t to step on stage absolutely ripped. You’ll need to tinker a bit with your intake to find what works best for your body.
However, what’s significantly more important than the amount consumed is the source. Saturated fat isn’t the demon the media portrays, provided it’s coming from organic, grass-fed meats or coconut oil.
Monounsaturated fats should be your focus. Think olives, avocados, almonds, organic butter, etc. Whenever possible, eat your fat via the food source from which it’s derived. I recommend it over consuming just the oil, which I liken to porn. You know, sex without the physical intimacy of another person. Indulging in Castelvetrano green olives is far better than swallowing a tablespoon of just olive oil.
Stay far away from polyunsaturated oil (vegetable oils/omega-6) because they easily become rancid and create inflammation in the body – the root of all sorts of chronic diseases.
Make a list of go-to fat sources, and know which ones to avoid.
My go-to fat sources are olive oil, avocado, and almonds. I’d also include egg yolks in there, but I seldom have whole eggs and usually opt for egg whites instead. That’s not for any health reason… other than I love egg whites slathered in Walden Farm’s zero-calorie syrup.
As far as fat avoidance, avoid pro-inflammatory trans fats. This shouldn’t be too hard since they’re usually only found in overly processed foods that won’t fit your usual eating habits anyway. You might ingest them during a cheat meal, but those aren’t average days.
I don’t eat butter or bacon. I also don’t know of a lot of super-jacked dudes eating tons of butter or bacon either. There’s a reason the great majority of people (wanting to improve their body comp) end up gravitating away from those foods.
I get a million messages a day about macro percentages and how much of this or that someone should eat when it comes to fat and carb intake. With fats, it depends.
Some people seem to do very well energy wise (and increased fat oxidation wise) with low carb/high fat or possibly ketogenic. But other people do better with higher carbs and lower fats. These people tend to be very insulin sensitive and can turn carbs into glucose very easily.
“Well, how do I know if I’m that person?”
It’s up to you to experiment and figure that out. No one can tell you that through a computer screen. In order to know how your body responds to certain diets or training you actually have to, you know, do them.
Fat is the most misunderstood aspect of those trying to optimize their diet.
Fats are the best source of energy for human metabolism. They also help provide the raw materials for all sex hormones, and they don’t influence blood sugar. Here are 5 reasons why fat is our friend:
- Fat regulates our appetite. It helps us feel satisfied.
- Fat provides long lasting energy that carbohydrates are no match for.
- Fat has very low insulin (the hormone of aging) response, especially compared to sugar. One of the greatest side effects from the low fat craze – besides tripling childhood obesity in just one decade in the US – is its impact on mental decline.
- Fat is essential to the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), which are vital for health.
- German nutrition expert Konrad Biesalski points out the counterintuitive reality that many of the nutrients implicated in protecting against cancer (vitamin A, folic acid, selenium, and zinc) are not only more abundant in meat but are also more bioavailable than they are when they’re coming from plant sources. This means that these nutrients are better absorbed when consumed from meat rather than vegetables and fruits.
- There are three types of fats you should include in your diet: saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated. Despite what we’ve heard in the past, saturated fat and cholesterol are needed for the synthesis of the steroid hormones in the body, including testosterone.
- Under all circumstances, avoid trans-fats.
- As a general rule, studies have shown that a fat intake making up less than 15% of overall calories in the diet can significantly decrease testosterone levels.
- If you’re on a carb-restricted diet, make sure you include a decent amount of saturated and mono-unsaturated since they’re good for energy metabolism. In addition, saturated fat and cholesterol help to maintain rigidity with cell structure.
- Poly-unsaturated fats should be included at lower quantities since they’re sensitive to oxidation. Still, these have specialized roles to help optimize cell function, cognitive behavior, and inflammatory modulation.
- Eating high carb and high fat at the same meal is not a good idea since insulin promotes fat storage in the wrong environment.
- Never cook with poly-unsaturated fats. Cook with coconut or palm oil. Other than brain boosting and fat-busting benefits, the reason to favor these tropical oils for cooking is because they’re extremely saturated, meaning any chance of oxidation from heat is minimized.
Our ancestors thrived on a 4:1 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. Nowadays the average diet leans toward 1:16 which is unhealthy. A reasonable aim would be a 1:1 ratio. This can be achieved by way of supplementation and good protein choices e.g. grass fed beef, yak, deer, elk over standard raised (often corn or soy-fed) pork, beef, and chicken.
I have three rules.
- Don’t consume concentrated “fat only” meals.
- Don’t consume fat without protein.
- Make sure you’re getting enough omega-3’s.
The problem is, people tend to look at fat as either “really bad” or “absolutely benevolent.” The reality is that neither is the case.
Of course fat is an essential nutrient that’s been overly demonized for most of the last 60 years. Without enough saturated fat your hormone levels will plummet. Without enough omega-3 fatty acids, chronic inflammation will send you into the hurt locker.
Fat can also be a great energy source, but this is where people, especially keto dieters, get really screwed up. In their minds, fat is a freebee. They think you can eat as much as you want without worrying about the implications for progress. What’s really dangerous about this for lifters is that many believe that eating lots of fat will somehow displace their protein requirements.
It’s true that the body spares protein in a state of ketosis(1), but there’s a big reason why you’d want to maintain a decent protein intake. Unless you’re using a keto diet to fight a chronic disease, or to fuel an endurance race, the goal isn’t just to get into ketosis.
Rather, your goal is probably to lift heavy weights and look good naked. Getting enough protein is essential to help you build and maintain muscle mass, and its thermic effect will help you burn fat.
So yes, you want to consume fat, particularly saturated fat, to keep that testosterone pumping. You also want to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3’s to fight inflammation. What you don’t want to be doing is artificially loading up your bloodstream with excess energy on a constant basis because that’ll keep you from your real goal: mobilizing your own fat stores for fuel. So consuming a bunch of fat without any protein is a big mistake.
Drinking “bulletproof coffee” every morning for breakfast is one example of this. That combination of butter and medium chain triglycerides blended up into a frothy beverage will lead to a rapid artificial increase of ketones in the bloodstream. With all of that readily available energy, your body isn’t going to go through all of the extra work to mobilize your own fat stores for fuel. It’s also going to ruin your appetite for getting the protein you’ll need.
If you’re going to go high fat and low carb, consume fat throughout the day in combination with protein and lots of leafy green vegetables. Foods like whole eggs, grass-fed beef, liver, grass-fed butter, chicken thighs, fatty fish, and olive oil should all be on the menu. You should also be eating brazil nuts to fulfill your selenium requirements and maintain thyroid function.
MCT oil and coconut oil should also be consumed, but sparingly as a quick source of energy because medium chain triglycerides get quickly converted into ketones. Think of these as performance enhancers to consume on days when you’re going to have a really grueling workout or when you’re expecting a long hard day on the job.
Carbs should also be considered performance and recovery enhancers, and the bulk of your carbs should also be consumed during and after your workout.
Here’s an example of what the whole thing could look like:
- Meal One: 3 whole eggs fried in grass fed butter, 5 Brazil nuts, 3 cups of green leafy vegetables, 2 caps of Flameout (on Amazon) and 2 caps of Micellar Curcumin (on Amazon).
- Meal Two: 8 ounces of grass fed beef, 3 cups of green leafy vegetables and 2 capsules of Flameout (add two tablespoons of MCT oil on hard training days or when you need an energy boost).
- Workout Nutrition: Have 1 serving of Surge Workout Fuel (on Amazon) 15 minutes prior to your workout and sip on 1 serving of Surge Workout Fuel throughout your workout.
- Meal Three: 8 ounces of grass fed beef, 3 cups of green leafy vegetables, and on hard training days add 1/2 to 1 cup of white rice to this meal.
- Meal Four: 6 ounces of wild-caught salmon, 3 cups of green leafy vegetables. Once or twice a week, switch this to grass-fed beef liver.
With this type of eating protocol, you’ll get the fat you need, you’ll fulfill your protein requirements, you’ll have enough carbs to fuel your workouts and your recovery on your hard training days, and enough omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients to help your body fight inflammation.
So to sum it all up, eat lots of fat, but make sure you’re eating it with protein. Additionally, don’t consume it in mass concentrated sources like bulletproof coffee. Finally, make sure you’re using a good omega-3 supplement to fight inflammation.
Find the right middle ground.
Like most things in nutrition, there are two extremes. With dietary fat, we have those who are stuck in the 1980s and think fat makes you fat and gives you heart disease. But on the other end of the spectrum we have those who are now adding butter to their coffee and chanting phrases like “eat fat to lose fat!”
I’ve never understood why everything must be taken to the extreme with nutrition. Most of the time, the answer will lie in the middle. There’s a sweet spot.
That’s why I like to recommend between 20-30% of total calorie intake coming from fat for the majority, or 0.4g per pound, which tends to work out to be a similar amount. There will be some cases when this goes lower (toward the final stages of a competition prep) or higher (if using a low carb diet), but for most people this is a good place to be.
When deciding where these fats come from, there’s no need to overcomplicate ratios and percentages of different fat types. The key is to include a nice mix of saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated fats:
- Saturated: Animal fats, butter, tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cacao)
- Mono-Unsaturated: Olive oil, avocados, peanut butter, eggs and many nuts and seeds
- Poly-Unsaturated: Oily fish, flax seed oil, safflower oil, walnuts
The only fat I’d actively avoid would be trans fats. Because of their processing, these types of fats provide very little, if any, benefit to the body and may actually do more harm than good. Trans fats typically come in the form of margarines and hydrogenated oils – commonly found in prepared desserts and snack foods.
We need fat in our diet. They not only play a key role in many processes within the body, but there are marked benefits for those of us wanting to improve body composition, like testosterone production, satiety, and controlling blood sugar.
Of course, specific situations and dietary circumstances will dictate exact amounts, but you can’t go wrong with keeping a variety of healthy fats as 20-30% of your total daily calorie intake.
There are a few guidelines I follow and recommend.
First, a little fat goes a long way. The obvious 9 calories per gram adds up quickly, even with a tablespoon. This can be an advantage for weight gain, of course. But even during weight loss, I like to keep some fat in the picture.
It’s true that aspects of our cells’ fat burning machinery are maintained (induced) when some fat is present in our meals. Second, monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) sources are best, for both the nutraceutical qualities of the fatty acids themselves (oleic acid) but also for the phytochemical antioxidants that typify foods like olive oil, avocado, seeds, and nuts. I also like saturated fatty acids from coconut oil for texture and for the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) they provide (about 60% of total).
People differ widely in baseline characteristics, but for me, about 20 grams of these fats per meal (usually four per day) works well. When I was dieting for competition, I’d eat as few as 10 grams of fat per meal, which can be tough.
A mistake I see with many people is that when they supplement fats they either take too little EPA and DHA (omega-3 fish oil fatty acids) or put too much credence in the “omega 3-6-9” type of fat supplement. Unlike coffee or other whole foods, when it comes to fat supplements, I’m after the total combined dose of the “active ingredient” EPA and DHA – about 2,000 mg per day.
I take my dose all at once because fats are much less sensitive to exercise timing. Regarding type, so many fats in a typical diet are already omega-6 (which we seriously over-consume and are a substrate for inflammation) and omega-9 (like the aforementioned MUFA). Remember, when we take a dose of omega-3 fats, we don’t typically think of them as a portion of daily calories, which would be miniscule (2 g x 9 kcal per gram = just 18 kcal).
It’s also worth noting that expanded fat supplement choices should be on everyone’s radar: MCT, affordable structured triglycerides, and even other omega-3s like stearidonic acid. Each is a tool that brings its own benefit. My mantra has long been that fats are more nutraceutical than the other macronutrients.
I can’t say I avoid particular fats other than trans fats, which are quickly leaving the commercial food supply due to consumer pressure. I will say that if carb avoidance isn’t working for a client with leanness goals, taking a carefully measured look at fats can be eye-opening. Like I said, the caloric density is very high and it adds up really quickly.
- Fats contribute aggressively to the daily calorie meter
- MUFA foods are best
- Seek a solid dose of the active ingredient in a fat supplement
- Go for a variety of food and supplement fat choices
I used to be a low-carb guy. As such, the fat intake I recommended was on the high side. But the more experienced I became as a coach the more I learned to play with carbs (types, amount, timing) and the less I relied on fats in the diet.
Seems like a lot of personal trainers are attracted to the low carb/moderate fat methodology because 90% of their clients are focused on losing fat. And while low-carb and medium fat dieting isn’t necessarily more effective, it’s extremely simple. So a personal trainer who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time learning about nutrition can simply lower carbs and increase fat a bit and their clients will get some fat loss. However, it might not be best for everybody in every situation.
Since I’m eating more carbs nowadays the reliance on fat for fuel is much lower. Fats still need to be included because you need several essential fatty acids to keep the body in an optimal functioning state. They’re required for the optimization of the nervous system and maintaining testosterone. The proper type will even keep the cardiovascular system healthier.
I used to focus mostly on fat amounts and not quality. I’d simply add fish oil to the mix to have my healthy fats. When I was younger I didn’t notice too many drawbacks from that… or maybe I just didn’t pay attention. But I recently had a crash course on the importance of the type of fats.
A few months back I did a keto diet experiment. At first I did what pretty much everybody else did: consume a high amount of saturated fats from bacon, cheese, full cream (in my shakes) and fatty meats. Within two days my blood pressure went from 117/80 to 155/100! I actually felt heart tightness. When I changed my fat intake to include more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats my blood pressure went back down and I felt better.
I now plan fat intake to cover all the required essential fatty acids. I also learned from Dr. Eric Serrano that it’s important not to have an unbalanced fatty acid intake. Yes, fish oil is healthy but if most of your fat comes from fish oil it’s not good either. Ideally you’d have a little of each of these daily:
- Fish oil Flameout (on Amazon)
- Olive oil
- Saturated fats (coconut oil is a good choice)
- CLA is a nice bonus
If you’re eating meat during the day, supplementing with coconut oil isn’t necessary. When it comes to health you really don’t need a huge dose of these fatty acids. And a serving of Flameout will give you more than enough EPA/DHA and CLA for your day. For the other fats, 3-5g of each per day is sufficient for optimal health.
Remember, I don’ t use dietary fat as a primary fuel source. So getting a total of around 25g of fats from these five sources (5g each) along with the fat included in your daily food (which might be anywhere between 15-60g depending on your food choices) is enough to keep everything functioning. That gives you anywhere from 40 to 85g per day. This would be the minimum that a client would consume under regular circumstances.
Now, the intake might be a tad higher if they need to eat a caloric surplus and don’t do well with a very high-carb intake. But it’s a nice place to start.
- Manninen AH. **Very-Low-Carbohydrate Diets and the Preservation of Muscle Mass.**Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006;3:9. PMC.