How important is the type of dietary fat you eat to muscle development? It’s no secret that nutrition counts when it comes to building a healthy body composition – both for losing body fat and building muscle. Plus, fat is one of the three macronutrients your body needs for producing energy and for muscle development.
Fortunately, fat has recently overcome the bad reputation it was so unfairly stuck with in the past. For years, health care professionals and nutritionists alike blamed fat for weight gain and health problems like heart disease. What they were ignoring is the fact that fat comes in different varieties and each affects your body a little differently. It’s time to abolish the idea that dietary fat equates with body fat.
The reality is your body NEEDS fat for a variety of reasons – to build healthy cells and cell membranes and to make hormones and signaling molecules that tell cells what to do. Fat has other functions as well. Your nerves are covered in a layer of fat called myelin that helps transmit nerve signals at top speed. Plus, let’s not forget that fat’s the ultimate insulator, helping you hold on to body heat when it’s cold outside. Dietary fat also helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Essential Fatty Acids: What They Are and Why They’re Important
The main reason fat is a dietary requirement is because of two essential fatty acids your body needs and can’t make. These fatty acids are called linoleic acid and linolenic acid. Without these two fats, you could develop deficiency symptoms such as dry, scaly skin, poor wound healing, dry eyes, menstrual cycle irregularities, or mood problems.
How do the two fatty acids differ? They’re both a polyunsaturated fat, which comes in two varieties based on structure – omega-3s and omega-6s. Linoleic acid is a type of omega-6 fatty acid while linolenic acid is an omega-3 fat. Your body is healthiest when you have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 between 4 to 1 to 1 to 1. Yet, the standard American diet, abundant in processed foods, has a ratio of around 15 to 1.
Some experts believe this unbalanced ratio creates inflammation and places stress on the body. What creates this imbalance? Omega-6 fats are abundant in many vegetable oils that processed food manufacturers use to make packaged foods, including soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, and sunflower oil. That’s why the American diet is so unbalanced – we eat too many processed foods. In contrast, you find omega-3s from sources like fatty fish and in some plant-based food, foods that most people don’t get enough of. These include flaxseed, chia seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and green, leafy vegetables.
As mentioned, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are components of polyunsaturated fats, one of the four major classes of dietary fats. The other three are saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and trans-fat, arguably the worst type of fat you can put into your body. Fortunately, trans-fat, created artificially by manufacturers, is being phased out due to its strong link with heart disease and stroke.
Saturated fat, the type found in full-fat dairy and meat products, was once thought to be strongly associated with heart disease. Yet, more recent research shows saturated fat from plant sources, particularly coconut oil, may have health benefits and may not be as heart unfriendly as originally believed. Finally, monounsaturated fats, abundant in nuts, avocados, and olive oil, are a heart-healthy form of fat.
In summary, the four main classes of fats are saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and trans-fat. Omega-3s and omega-6s are two types of polyunsaturated fat. The most heart-healthy of the bunch are monounsaturated fats and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.
Dietary Fat and Muscle Development
Now that you know you need fat in your diet for health and certain types are healthier than others, which should you choose? Monounsaturated fats win points for being heart healthy. Some polyunsaturated fats, omega-3s, are too. Plus, they help to balance out the high level of omega-6s in the standard American diet. The theory is that omega-3s help calm the inflammation created by a diet high in omega-6s. Athletes and bodybuilders need dietary fat too. In fact, dietary fat should make up between 20 and 30% of your total calories each day.
You might wonder if you weight train for muscle development whether there are benefits to getting more of one type of fat over another. Remember how we said omega-3s and omega-6s are types of polyunsaturated fat? There’s some evidence that omega-3 fats offer muscle-building benefits, although most of the evidence is in older adults.
How might omega-3s enhance muscle development? Research shows that with age, our muscle cells become more resistant to the anabolic growth signals that turn on muscle protein synthesis. It’s these growth signals that tell your muscles to make new proteins, and, therefore, grow in size and strength in response to resistance training. Anabolic resistance is one factor that makes it harder for older adults to build new muscle.
As we speak, there’s a growing epidemic of sarcopenia, pathological loss of functional muscle tissue associated with aging. Scientists are desperately looking for ways to help older people retain muscle tissue so they can stay functional. Are omega-3s a possible remedy?
According to a study published in 2011, omega-3s reduce anabolic resistance, making it easier to build new muscle tissue. Even more encouraging, this study showed omega-3s boost anabolic signaling and muscle development in healthy, young adults as well. It seems to do this by activating an important pathway for muscle growth – the mTOR pathway. So, there’s evidence in older people that omega-3s boost anabolic signaling and help promote muscle growth. Plus, preliminarily, it looks like omega-3s might help healthy, young people grow muscle more easily as well.
Of course, you have to give muscles a reason to grow and that stimulus is resistant training. As you know, nutrition is a critical part of the muscle development equation. So, why not add more omega-3s to your diet? At the very least, you’ll be creating a healthier ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s and you may be giving your muscles a little extra stimulus to grow. In addition, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s may help your muscles recover faster as well.
Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70:560S-569S.
Clin Sci (Lond). 2011 Sep; 121(6): 267-278.doi: 10.1042/CS20100597.
WebMD. “Your Omega-3 Family Shopping List”
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