Certain types of fats boost lean muscle growth. It might sound counterintuitive but it’s a science backed fact and in this article we are going to figure out what delicious fats you need to eat to grow the muscle you have been dreaming of.
As a reminder, effective hypertrophy (muscle gain) requires a balance between training, nutrition and recovery. Building muscle is a 3 part game and how fast you see results depends on each body composition and metabolic system. For a more specific nutritional plan, we advise you to talk to your nutritionist or physician. You can discuss how to be exact about what you eat (especially fats) and make the right choices for your body.
Fueling muscles for optimal growth
For generations athletes have believed that a high protein diet will increase their strength and muscle mass. This is not far from true, protein in our bodies is used to build, maintain and repair body tissues, plus it helps synthesize important enzymes and hormones. So yes, protein is extremely vital in your diet, but by itself, it is not effective for muscle gain. Instead, the magic formula for optimal muscle growth is protein plus carbohydrate in combination with the right kinds of fat. It’s super important to highlight that you must place equal emphasis on the right types of protein, carbohydrate, and fat in your diet. These three nutrients work in cahoots to give you the advantage of building body-firming muscle.
What is Fat?
In the same way as proteins and carbohydrates, fats are made of smaller components. A fat molecule consists of two kinds of components: three fatty acid tails connected by a glycerol. Most of our body fat, fat stored in our bodies, and the fat we can find in food exist in a form called triglycerides.
Also, you have most probably heard the terms saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats and wondered what they really mean for your body composition. The saturation depends on the chemical bonds that connect the fatty acid molecules.
Fats to limit while you are Muscle Building
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal foods and tend to be a bit more solid at room temperature. For instance, dairy products like butter, cheese, greek yogurt; and cuts of meat with fat. But, there are also saturated fats in a more liquid form, like palm and coconut oil.
A diet too high in saturated fats can be harmful. Too much saturated fat can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries (blood vessels). Saturated fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol. High LDL cholesterol damages your heart health and puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends getting less than 10 percent of calories each day from saturated fat.
Cutting back on saturated fat can be good for your health, but you don’t want to take out the fat component in your diet. What you need is to replace saturated fat with good fats, especially polyunsaturated fats.
Healthy Fats for Muscle Growth
They are known as the “good” fats or healthy unsaturated fats and the reason is because this kind of fat can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and even help you build lean muscle. They are mostly found in foods from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
There are two types of “good” fats:
- Monounsaturated fats
They are fats found in foods such as olive oil (extra virgin olive oil is better), canola oil, peanuts and peanut oil, most nuts (except walnuts), and avocados. Seeds such as pumpkin, sesame and chia seeds.
- Polyunsaturated fats
They are categorized by their structures: Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids.
These fats are required to make substances called eicosanoids, which are hormonelike substances that affect blood pressure, immunity, inflammation, contraction of smooth muscle tissue (such as your heart), and body composition.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are essential fatty acids that the body can’t make, so they must come from food.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in many varieties of fish and also in some plant foods: flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. Oily fish contains long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Long-chain omega-3 can help to prevent heart disease. It is also important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, because it can help a baby’s nervous system to develop. Oily fish are the richest source of long-chain omega-3.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and sesame oils. Just as there are essential amino acids that the body needs but cannot make, there are also other food sources that contain both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids like flax oil.
However, at the end of the day, all foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats. Take coconut oil, it’s 83 percent saturated fat, 2 percent polyunsaturated fat, and 6 percent monounsaturated fat. Whole eggs total fatty acid composition is monounsaturated (approximately 38%), 16% is polyunsaturated and only 28% is saturated. Even lean chicken and nuts have small amounts of saturated fat, of course less than the amounts found in cheese and ice cream!
Which Builds More Muscle Mass, Saturated or Polyunsaturated Fats?
While both saturated and polyunsaturated fats are calorically similar, recent studies suggest that each type is used by our bodies in a very different way and causes a distinctly different kind of muscle gain.
Uppsala University conducted the first study on humans to show the influence of fat composition of food (saturated and polyunsaturated fats) on the ability to grow lean muscle. The study involved 39 young adult men and women of normal weight, who ate 750 extra calories per day for seven weeks. The goal was for them to gain three per cent of their starting weight.
The first group, randomly selected, obtained the surplus calories from muffins made with sunflower oil (polyunsaturated fat), while the other half got their surplus calories from muffins made with palm oil (saturated fat). Besides that, both diets contained the same amount of sugar, carbohydrates, fat, and protein.
The results were impressive. Both groups had similar weight gains, but those that gained weight consuming polyunsaturated fats gained more muscle mass, while those who gained weight consuming saturated fats gained much more fat in the abdomen, and particularly visceral fat around internal organs. This kind of fat is detrimental for our health and is thought to be a key factor in the development of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
Overall, the group who consumed the polyunsaturated fat gained three times the muscle mass, while accumulating much less fat.
To support this idea, recent research shows that a high intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) has been associated with increases in lean body mass and changes in body composition that involve reductions in central adiposity. Plus other health benefits like reductions in cardiovascular disease risk with lower levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol, and improvement in the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol.
It’s All About The Dietary Balance
Dietary fat (fat from food) serves important functions in the body and is a source of calories. Dietary fat does not necessarily turn into body fat. Yes, it is a dense source of calories. For instance, dietary fat provides nine calories per gram compared with four calories per gram of carbohydrate. But not having enough fat in our diets can prevent us from getting enough of the other macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates.
Also, having adequate body fat and body muscle is essential for health and performance. Regulating the consumption of saturated and polyunsaturated fats is a big concern for many athletes, as is achieving the right ratio of lean mass to fat weight. Having too little body fat can impair hormone production, leading to inadequate muscle building and decrease in bone density.
Calorie intake is certainly important in building muscle mass; however, the source of those calories is crucial if you want to maximize muscle and minimize body fat. Having a proper balance of fat intake can lead you to losing fat and muscle gains. The idea is that each calorie that you put into your mouth will be results oriented and for that you need to develop a food plan that emphasizes lean protein, natural carbohydrate, and good fat.
Eating enough calories for gaining muscle can be tricky and a tough workout for your brain. How much you need of each nutrient depends on a number of factors, including your age and sex, how hard you train, and whether you are into competitive or recreational weight training. Studies have shown that athletes, in particular, may have to exceed the dietary reference intakes (DRI) of many nutrients. Some competitive bodybuilders have estimated their caloric intake to be greater than 6,000 calories a day during the off-season, this is around three times the DRI for the average person (2,000 calories a day for women and 2,700 calories a day for men). This is why seeing a nutritionist or a physician is so important.
If your goal is to develop lean muscle, then your plan should take into consideration several factors, including balancing protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Don’t forget to increase your water intake, organize the balance of your food into multiple meals and make sure you get enough rest and sleep at night.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.