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Fat Facts: Why Fat Source Matters

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One look at a fitness magazine and trash cans immediately fill with whole eggs, meats and cheeses. Shopping lists become void of any animal product, and the dairy section of the grocery store might as well be the gate to Hell, and saturated fat the devil himself.

On the other side of town, IIFYM anarchists throw down whatever fat source they can find. Fried fish, or fish oil- it’s all fair game as long as those daily macro goals are met.

Somewhere in the middle, a well-informed consumer enjoys eggs at breakfast, steak for dinner, and plenty of olive oil, seeds and fish oils sprinkled in between. This person understands the benefit of a balanced diet, and while total daily intake matters, so too does the sources that comprise that intake. With so many misconceptions on dietary fat and what aspects of it actually matter- it’s time we set the record straight.

Energy Balance > Energy Source

Fitness “professionals” love to demonize specific nutrients to scare potential clients into taking action and following their “cutting edge,” and often-extreme diet plans. In reality, although other factors we’ll discuss later also play a role, it’s not a specific food or macronutrient that’s the cause of your stalled fat loss or muscle growth.

These fitness professionals show their ignorance by not making mention the importance of thermodynamics in weight management plans. When it all boils down, it’s not the fat or carbohydrate inherently making your weight management plans ineffective, but the total energy balance you’re attaining through your total daily intake. Fat, carbohydrate or protein: over or under eating any of these will cause you to fall short in your efforts. Not because you are having that whole egg in the morning.

Fat isn’t the enemy of weight change, and actually has MANY health and performance benefits for individuals- it’s simply more energy dense (more calories per gram) than carbohydrate and protein, thus requiring a bit of extra attention when incorporating into a diet. Now with that said, once your energy balance is adjusted for your current metabolism and expenditure- there are some more detail-oriented aspects of fat that can help you fine tune your diet for better, long-term performance and physique goals.

Roles of Dietary Fat in Health & Performance

  • Proper hormone function
  • Cell membrane health
  • Brain function
  • Nutrient absorption
  • Digestion
  • Energy production
  • Source of multiple micronutrients
  • Insulation

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

Now we can agree that total energy balance is the largest determinant in weight change. If you personally prefer more fat and less carbs in your diet- you can still lose weight by adjusting your total daily caloric intake to accommodate for the differing macro ratios. However the consideration most fitness gurus fail to understand and underline to clients is the different thermic effect of food (TEF) each macronutrient contains. When consumed, it takes more or less energy for protein, carbohydrate, and fat to each be metabolized and used by the body- leading to differences in total net calories from each, and differing strategies for how much of each to ideally consume.

Although over or under eating with either of the three macronutrients can disrupt body composition manipulations, fat gets the worst rap due to it’s much lower TEF. A lower TEF suggests that more net energy is retained by the body- making each gram more readily stored as body fat if not oxidized for energy or other bodily processes.

Thermic Effect of Macronutrients
Macros Calories/Gram TEF Approx Net Calories
1 Gram Fat 9kcals 0-2% 8.28-9.00 kcals
1 Gram Carb 4kcals 6-8% 3.68-2.76 kcals
1 Gram Protein 4kcals 30-40% 2.40-2.80 kcals

In addition, it’s been reported that a 25% energy cost is required for carbohydrate to be converted into stored body fat. This fact, along with the above mentioned TEF of each macro reflects why it may be easier to overeat and disrupt weight loss or maintenance efforts with dietary fat compared to carbohydrate or protein.[1]

So even though managing your total energy balance is the biggest factor in weight change, adjusting your carb, fat and protein intake to accommodate for this difference in TEF can make that total energy balance easier to manipulate through your various fat loss and muscle growth phases.

Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) & TEF

It’s generally best to think of all dietary fat to contain 9 calories per gram, despite some slight variations in MCTs. The unique structure of MCTs has been shown to allow it to more easily be used for energy than stored as body fat, as well as contain less total calories per gram than other fat sources.[2]

This discovery has led many fitness gurus to suggest nearly miracle benefits of MCT consumption for weight loss- promoting greater and greater promotion of MCT oil supplementation and coconut oil (high in MCTs) consumption in hopes of eating a larger amount of calories while still getting ripped.

The problem with this strategy is first that of total intake maintenance. By becoming overly concerned with exact caloric content of various nutrients, it becomes increasingly difficult to track and adjust daily & weekly intake- with basically insignificant benefits. For example, those that believe fiber shouldn’t count toward total carb intake, even though fiber only provides roughly 1kcal less energy than starchy carbs.

The other major issue is although MCTs tend to favor energy use than storage in the body, and provide slightly less calories per gram (roughly 7 calories/gram), its effect on long-term body composition improvements seem rather limited. [3] Initially, any benefits seen are likely due to cumulative overall dietary intake by individuals making efforts to eat better in general. Improvements are not likely from MCT consumption directly though, unless an excessive MCT intake is consumed on an ongoing basis.

Even though some may be willing to stock up on coconut oil and do just that- it should be forewarned that large consumption of MCTs are known to cause significant gastrointestinal discomfort including diarrhea and nausea. The reduced performance from being constantly sick will likely far outweigh any benefits to large intakes of MCTs, compared to balanced intakes of various fat sources.

For these reasons, and for the sake of more easily tracked dietary intake- it’s best to look at each macronutrient as containing the same caloric value regardless of the source.

Fat Source DOES Matter

Total energy balance rests at the top of the dietary hierarchy. Caloric differences in fat sources are negligible and not significant enough to be tracked with daily intake. With that out of the way, it’s beneficial to ignore the IIFYM extremists that tell you fat source itself doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Truth be told, their “grand scheme” is likely limited to looking good enough to bag the next fit chick that joins their gym or add another 100 Instagram followers.

Although all fat sources contain roughly the same amount of calories, there can be large differences in macronutrient profile within each. Not focusing enough on unsaturated fats can reduce the availability of many significant vitamins & minerals that could otherwise benefit the athlete. If you’re serious about maximizing your athletic performance, look your best, and stay healthy over the long haul- it’s a good idea to begin paying attention to what kind of fat you’re eating on an average day, despite the lack of mention among YouTube celebs.

Overlooked Omegas

The typical American consumes a very imbalanced intake of Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 fatty acids (too much 6, not enough 3), something that contributes to fat greater health disruptions than often highlighted in the media. Not only are most people not consuming the ideal amount of fat compared to their goals, but they’re also too often consuming fat sources that promoter excessive inflammation while limiting otherwise possible safeguards against various cardiovascular diseases.

For some athletes, being healthier doesn’t necessarily raises their sails as much as lifting more weight, gaining more muscle, and getting more shredded. Fortunately, optimal Omega-3 intake extends beyond great health benefits, and has also been shown to improve long-term body composition with consistent intake.

There have been studies showing fish oil consumption can positively augment muscle protein synthesis in resistance training athletes for greater muscle growth. (Also supports increases in lean mass by influencing not only exercise induced adaptions, but also muscle tissue response to dietary intake. [4][5]

Summary of Omega-3 Benefits

  • Improved Cognitive Function
  • Cardiovascular Health [7][8]
  • Improved Joint Health
  • Muscle Growth [9]
  • Long Term Body Composition [10]
  • Improved Fetal Health & Early Neural Development

Omega-3 intake has been shown to have some pretty incredible benefits- something marketers have tried to really take advantage of. Walk down a grocery aisle and you’ll see more labels than ever stating their Omega-3 content. Most of these foods truly are nutrient dense, great choices to consume. However the Omega-3 claims can be quite misleading. There are essentially 3 forms of Omega-3 fatty acids- ALA, DHA and EPA. DHA/EPA are the forms we need most, and are generally found in fatty fish & fish oil supplements.

ALA is more commonly found in plant sources (think flaxseed) and is known to have a very poor conversion rate to DHA, with as little as 4-6% converted after consumption. This is to say that many plant-based sources may claim to be high in Omega-3 off technicalities, however they are quite low on the forms actually significant for humans to consume. This makes marine sources and supplementation a very good idea those looking to obtain the above benefits. [6]

Good Sources of Highly Bioavailable Omega 3

  • Salmon
  • Rainbow Trout
  • Tuna
  • Flounder
  • Mackerel
  • Cod
  • Fish Oil (triglyceride form is best absorbed) [11]

The often-varying farming & fishing techniques of marine sources make bioavailability, and health benefits differ among sources. This is a strong reason behind consuming quality fish oil supplements in order to compliment Omega-3 intake while limiting any harmful substances. Look for a triglyceride form of fish oil supplement, and wild caught (not farm raised) seafood to keep health benefits high and harmful substances to a minimum.

Omega 3 Intake Suggestion

The commonly suggested daily serving of 2g fish oil is generally accepted as sufficient for those marketing and consuming a fish oil supplement to compliment Omega-3 intake. Based on the available research though, it would seem that 2g/day would be best as a daily minimum, while as high as 6/g day is shown to have benefit.

Aiming for 2-6g/day can be a great rule of thumb for those looking to maximize the health and performance benefits seen within the research. [12][13][14]

Eat Fat, Lose Fat?

The first thing many people do when dieting is severely drop fat intake. It may seem counterintuitive, but doing so actually quite substantially disrupts not only long-term fat loss goals, but can also have pretty gnarly effects to muscle retention, metabolic rate and hormone balance.

Dieting for an extended period of time, even with the most scientifically backed methods, can lead to significant metabolic and hormonal disruptions. Our job as physique coaches is to help mitigate those negative effects as much as possible. One strategy for doing just that is making sure to keep a reasonable amount of dietary fat in a clients’ plan at all times. This can help maintain testosterone levels, along with many other hormones, to a better degree than dropping fat altogether from a diet.

To briefly fall back to our Omega-3 discussions, research has helped highlight that replacement of saturated fat sources more Omega-3 fat sources to improve overall body composition and reduced fat storage. [15] These benefits are likely from increased fat oxidation spurred by omega-3 intake. So contrary to popular guru belief, consuming adequate dietary fat can actually help athletes lose more body fat. Even substituting saturated fats with other forms of mono- and polyunsaturated fats have been shown to improve rates of fat oxidation.

Some research has also shown high-DHA fish oil supplementation to help support improved body composition both independent of exercise and further benefits in conjunction with training. [16] This continues to support the potent benefits of regular Omega-3 intake for those looking to maximize long term body composition.

Those athletes that treat all fat as being the same, yet boast about willingness to do “whatever it takes” to reach their physique goals, are unwittingly leaving a significant amount of progress on the table by not giving attention to the fat sources they consume on a daily basis. [17]

So Long to Saturated Fats?

After learning how great Omega-3s and other polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are, many become convinced that saturated fats must be absolutely terrible for their health. Once again, the theme of moderation comes into play, since consuming saturated fat in itself isn’t necessarily harmful.

Based on available research, it seems saturated fat intake isn’t itself bad, but instead a poor balance of saturated fats vs. various unsaturated fats within a regular diet. Many commonly favorite foods contain saturated fats. More fatty cuts of meats, dairy products, butter and many favorite baked goods are all comprised of saturated fats.

It’s unreasonable to swear off all favorite foods the rest of our lives for the sake of avoiding saturated fats, especially when moderate intake is shown to be just fine in a balanced diet. As long as focus is placed on nutrient density, variety and proper energy balance, there’s a place for enjoying favorite foods along the way.

Fat Intake Recommendations

So if saturated fat isn’t evil, how much can we get away with? Although each individual’s needs vary, the American Heart Association (AHA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide some general intake recommendations to support long-term health, and allow room for other nutrient dense sources. Keeping an eye on your average saturated fat intake, relative to organizational suggestions can make it easier to maintain health and progress while still making room for favorite foods and days when the most “perfect” food choices may not always be available to fit your macros.

American Heart Association- 7% or less of total calorie intake
(i.e. 19g saturated fat in a 2,500 calorie diet)

United States Department of Agriculture- 10% or less of total calorie intake
(i.e. 28g saturated fat in a 2,500 calorie diet) [18]

Considering that most bodybuilding diets have fat comprising of 20-30% of total calorie intake- that leaves roughly 15-20% of total calorie intake coming from unsaturated fats that will provide the above-suggested benefits. A general outline for a diet may look like the below:

3,000 Calorie Diet for a 210lbs Male Bodybuilder

  • 200g Protein
  • 400g Carbohydrate
  • 66g Fat
    • – 33g or less saturated fat
    • – 4g omega 3 fatty acids
    • – 29g various mono- and polyunsaturated fats

Common Sources of Mono- and Polyunsaturated Fats

  • Fatty fish & fish oil supplements
  • Sunflower kernels and sunflower butter
  • Various nuts and seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nut butters (preferably brands with minimally added ingredients)

Final Words on Fat

At the end of the day, it’s important to reiterate that simply changing fat sources doesn’t dismiss the other factors important in long-term health such as energy balance and macronutrient distribution. That said, if you’re serious about maximizing your long-term health, physique progress, and performance in the gym- it’s important to keep in mind that simply hitting correct macros each day will only get you so far.

Once the foundation is set, turning more attention to varying nutrient density and benefits particular foods offer can help you make more efficient progress, but also ensure you’re able to make that progress for a long time to come through improved health markers. We may all be kids at heart, but it doesn’t mean we should eat like children. Time to make that big boy and girl progress!


  1. Ryan, A. S., & Antonio, J. (2013). Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. New York City, NY: Linus Learning.
  2. St-Onge, M., Ross, R., Parsons, W. D., & Jones, P. J. (2003). Medium-Chain Triglycerides Increase Energy Expenditure and Decrease Adiposity in Overweight Men. Obesity Research, 11(3), 395-402. doi:10.1038/oby.2003.53
  3. Ranhotra, G. S., Gelroth, J. A., & Glaser, B. K. (1995). Levels of Medium-Chain Triglycerides and Their Energy Value. American Association of Cereal Chemists,, 72(4), 365-367. Retrieved from http://www.aaccnet.org/publications/cc/backissues/1995/Documents/72_365.pdf
  4. Noreen, E. E., Sass, M. J., Crowe, M. L., Pabon, V. A., Brandauer, J., & Averill, L. K. (2010). Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 31. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-31
  5. Jeromson, S., Gallagher, I., Galloway, S., & Hamilton, D. (2015). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Skeletal Muscle Health. Marine Drugs, 13(12), 6977-7004. doi:10.3390/md13116977
  6. Pawlosky, R., Hibbeln, J., Novotny, J., & Salem, N. (20016). Physiological compartmental analysis of α-linolenic acid metabolism in adult humans. Journal of Lipid Research, 42, 1257-1265. Retrieved from http://www.jlr.org/content/42/8/1257.short
  7. Bloomer, R. J., Larson, D. E., Fisher-Wellman, K. H., Galpin, A. J., & Schilling, B. K. (2009). Effect of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid on resting and exercise-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers: a randomized, placebo controlled, cross-over study. Lipids in Health and Disease, 8(1), 36. doi:10.1186/1476-511x-8-36
  8. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease. (2003). Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology., 151-152. doi: https://doi.org/10.1161/01.ATV.0000057393.97337.AE
  9. Broder, J., & Kyriakopoulos, A. (n.d.). Fish Oil and Athletic Performance. Retrieved June 03, 2017, from http://www.theissnscoop.com/tag/omega-3/
  10. Couet, C., Delarue, J., Ritz, P., Antoine, J., & Lamisse, F. (1997). Effect of dietary fish oil on body fat mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. International Journal of Obesity, 21(8), 637-643. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0800451
  11. Sources of Omega-3. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/images/uploads/main/Programs/Sources_of_omega_3.pdf
  12. Buckley, J. D., & Howe, P. R. (2010). Long-Chain Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids May Be Beneficial for Reducing Obesity—A Review. Nutrients, 2(12), 1212-1230. doi:10.3390/nu2121212
  13. Noreen, E. E., Sass, M. J., Crowe, M. L., Pabon, V. A., Brandauer, J., & Averill, L. K. (2010). Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 31. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-7-31
  14. Smith, G., Atherton, P., Reeds, D., Mohammed, B., Rankin, D., Rennie, M., & Mittendorfer, B. (2011). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids augment the muscle protein anabolic response to hyperinsulinaemia–hyperaminoacidaemia in healthy young and middle-aged men and women. Clinical Science, 121(6), 267-278. doi:10.1042/cs20100597
  15. Rokling-Andersen, M. H., Rustan, A. C., Wensaas, A. J., Kaalhus, O., Wergedahl, H., Røst, T. H., . . . Drevon, C. A. (2009). Marine n-3 fatty acids promote size reduction of visceral adipose depots, without altering body weight and composition, in male Wistar rats fed a high-fat diet. British Journal of Nutrition, 102(07), 995. doi:10.1017/s0007114509353210
  16. Buckley, A., Buckley, J., Murphy, K., & Hower, P. (2007). Combining fish-oil supplements with regular aerobic exercise improves body composition and cardiovascular disease risk factors. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(5), 1267-1274. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/5/1267.full
  17. Wang, H., Storlien, L. H., & Huang, X. (2002). Effects of dietary fat types on body fatness, leptin, and ARC leptin receptor, NPY, and AgRP mRNA expression. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology And Metabolism, 282(6). doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00230.2001
  18. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: Answers to Your Questions. (2016, January 07). Retrieved June 03, 2017, from https://edubirdie.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/dietary-guidelines.pdf

About the author

About Andrew Pardue
Andrew Pardue

Andrew Pardue is a contest prep coach and the owner of APFitness. With a degree in Exercise Science, minors in Chemistry and Entrepreneurship, and being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA - Andrew focuses on science-backed research to develop the most effective training and diet for physique athletes, while keeping long-term...[Continue]

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