With so much focus on dietary protein, it’s easy to forget the importance of getting fat in your diet when you’re trying to build muscle. At one time, low-fat diets were popular. As a result, non-fat products popped up on supermarket shelves and everyone tried to watch their fat intake.
Unfortunately, when fat goes out, carbs come in. As a result, many low-fat and non-fat products are high in processed carbs. We now know processed carbs increase insulin release and create a metabolic environment that makes it harder to lose body fat.
You already understand the importance of getting enough protein in your diet when you’re trying to build lean body mass – but what about dietary fats? Can adding more healthy fats to your diet help too?
Dietary Fats: Why Do You Need Them Anyway?
Some fat in your diet is essential. You need fat to supply the essential fatty acids your body needs for health but is unable to synthesize. If you tried to completely eliminate fats from your diet, you’d develop health problems due to lack of essential fatty acids. You might experience hair loss, very dry skin, brittle nails, memory issues, visual issues, decreased immunity, constipation, and depression. For good health, at least 10% of your calories should come from fats – but between 20 and 30% is better.
There’s another reason you need fat in your diet. When you eat a fat-free meal, your body can’t absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K. It also can’t absorb fat-soluble antioxidants like carotenoids in fruits and vegetables. In addition, every cell in your body has a membrane surrounding it that’s composed of fat. Lack of dietary fats alters the structure of these membranes including cells that have vital functions like heart and brain cells.
We think of a low-fat diet as being protective against heart disease – but a diet that’s so low in fat that it lacks essential fatty acids may actually increase heart disease risk. Recent research is even calling into question whether saturated fat, the type most abundant in meat and full-fat dairy products raises the risk of heart disease.
Dietary Fats and Muscle Hypertrophy
It’s clear that very low-fat diets aren’t healthy, but are there benefits to adding more fat to your diet if you’re trying to build muscle? One type of fat that may give you an “edge” when it comes to building lean body mass are omega-3 essential fatty acids. Long-chain omega-3s are abundant in fatty fish while short-chain ones are in plant-based foods like walnuts, sesame seeds, and flaxseeds.
Research shows supplementing with omega-3s, alone or combined with amino acid supplementation, increases muscle protein synthesis in animals. A study in young, healthy humans confirmed these benefits. Individuals that supplemented with omega-3s showed an increase in muscle protein synthesis in the setting of amino acids and insulin. That means adding omega-3 fats to your protein/carb post-workout snack could boost muscle protein synthesis even more.
Another study showed omega-3s helps older people preserve muscle mass as they age. Older adults that supplemented with omega-3s experienced increased muscle anabolic activity while those that supplemented with corn oil didn’t. Other research shows omega-3 fats help preserve loss of muscle in people who have cancer. Omega-3 fats seem to have anabolic effects in older people, those with cancer and young, healthy people.
Omega-3 Dietary Fats: Do They Have Fat-Burning Benefits?
There’s another reason to make sure you have adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet. Some research in obese people show omega-3s help with weight loss, possibly by increasing fat oxidation. Unfortunately, not all studies show this benefit. Whether omega-3s boost fat oxidation in humans is uncertain but fats do appear to have satiety benefits.
How do fats increase satiety? According to one study, the essential fatty acid oleic acid is converted in your intestines to a compound called OEA. OEA activates nerve endings in your intestinal tract that signal your brain you’re full. They also slow down the rate at which food leaves your stomach. This helps curb appetite.
Medium-chain triglycerides are a type of saturated fat but one that behaves differently than most saturated fats. It’s a medium-chain fatty acid, unlike most saturated fats that are long-chained. Because of its shorter length, it can be quickly absorbed by the digestive tract and rapidly makes its way to the liver. Here, it acts more like a carbohydrate, serving as a source of energy. Some research suggests medium-chain triglycerides boost fat oxidation and reduce fat storage. Comes in handy when you’re trying to remove the layer of body fat that’s covering up your muscles, doesn’t it? Some of the best sources of medium-chain triglycerides are coconut oil and palm oil.
The Bottom Line?
It’s important to get enough protein but make sure your diet is balanced. Moderate amounts of healthy fats, particularly omega-3s, may give you an edge when it comes to building muscle. When you eat your post-workout snack, include some omega-3s from sources like wild-caught salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed. Some eggs are also fortified with omega-3s, so you can enjoy healthy fats and protein at the same time. Enjoy the benefits of adding healthy fats to your diet.
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