It’s no secret that protein is the most essential macronutrient for building muscle. After all, everything you see—from your hair to your fingernails—is made of protein. Carbs, on the other hand, give you energy and replenish your glycogen after a tough workout. But what about fat? Does fat help us get in great shape or increase our athletic performance? Well, it turns out fat is way more important when it comes to muscle building than you might think. Here’s why:
The concept of "fat" is pretty misunderstood.
The word "fat" refers to compounds that are subsets of lipids and are typically water insoluble. Lipids help you store energy, synthesize protein (in other words: build muscle), and maintain healthy hormone levels. Fat comes in many forms, not all of which can be produced naturally by the body—and this is why you need to feed it with fat from your diet.
The reason "fat" has developed such a negative reputation is because it also pertains to that excess buildup around your love handles and under your chin. And therein lies the issue—most people confuse dietary fat with cosmetic fat. While I do subscribe to the notion that "you are what you eat," in this case we can't take it quite that literally. The fat you eat and the fat on your body are two completely different things.
It’s important that our bodies have a balance of omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both considered polyunsaturated fatty acids, and we can only obtain them through our diets. While omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties1, omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. While it’s necessary for us to have levels of omega-6 in our bodies (some inflammation is necessary for our bodies, after all), a diet that’s too high in omega-6 2will lead to harmful levels of inflammation. The average United States diet is characteristically high in omega-6, which could explain our remarkably high levels of inflammation. Omega-9 fatty acids, on the other hand, are considered monounsaturated fatty acids that can be produced naturally in our bodies. However, a diet high in omega-9 can also decrease inflammation levels3.
Overall, healthy fats are necessary for our bodies to fight (and sometimes produce) inflammation. Some ways you can get your recommended amounts of plant-based, healthy fats are by eating coconut oil, MCT oil, avocados, chia seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds.
Why your body needs fat to perform at its highest level.
Your body is pretty remarkable, and when you take in a surplus of a substance, your body adapts and learns how to use it more efficiently. For example, when you take in excess fat, your body adapts to use it for useful energy.
At the cellular level, fat contains fatty acids in the form of omega-3, -6, and -9. Your body requires all of these to carry out essential functions, such as absorbing nutrients. If your diet isn’t rich in healthy fats, many of the good-for-you vitamins and minerals you’re taking in will pass right through your system. In other words: Eating fat will help your food become more nutritious, which will help your body perform at its highest level.
But what does this mean for building muscle?
Testosterone, a key player in the muscle-building process, is derived largely from cholesterol (a waxy, fatlike substance found in our cells). A diet rich in "good" fats will also increase your levels of "good" cholesterol, or HDL. Higher HDL will help you produce more growth hormone, which increases the production of amino acids (the building blocks of muscle) into your cells. In short, protein gets a lot of the glory, but fat is also necessary for building healthy muscle mass.
For all of fat's amazing benefits, at 9kcal/gram, it is still the most calorically dense nutrient. Fats contain more than twice the amount of calories as carbs and protein, which both contain 4kcal/gram. So like anything else, moderation is the word. Don’t neglect fat in your diet, but focus on healthy fats and always be mindful of the balance between the calories you're consuming and burning each day.
Matt Scheetz is a brand strategist at mindbodygreen. He’s a NASM-certified personal trainer, so he’s usually the person everyone comes to when they need a new workout routine. He’s usually at the gym before the sun rises, which makes sense since his favorite hobby is eating things that make it necessary to be at the gym before the sun rises.