Fats 101

Fats also known as oils or lipids are an essential dietary need for the body and for good health. Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin, hair and insulating the body organs. They promote cellular function and are necessary for the proper absorption, transportation and function of the fat-soluble vitamins including A, D, E, and K. The components of fats are necessary building blocks for cell membranes, as well as structures inside cells within the body. Fats also play a role in metabolism, and help maintain body temperature or homeostasis. Within the body, fats are broken down by the enzyme lipase, produced by the pancreas to function as a source of energy, where each gram of fat provides 9 calories. The by-product from breakdown of fat is glucose which is used by the liver.

Structure of Fats

Fats are made up of a number of repeating biological units, connected together by hydrogen bonds. Each unit consists of a single molecule of an alcohol called glycerol combined with three molecules of fatty acids. Fats may be either solid or liquid at room temperature, depending on their structure and composition. Oils are usually in reference to fats that are liquids at normal room temperature and do not mix with water, while the term ‘fats’ is usually used to refer to solids at normal room temperature. Lipids can be used to refer to both liquid and solid fats, along with other related substances.

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Saturated and Unsaturated Fats

Fats can be classified as either saturated or unsaturated dependent on saturation of the fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids contain carbon atoms that are linked to as many hydrogen atoms as possible, where as unsaturated fatty acid contains double bonds of carbon atoms together, meaning only a single hydrogen atom can be attached and are not connected to a maximum number of bonds. Saturated and unsaturated fats differ in their energy content and melting point. Since an unsaturated fat contains fewer carbon-hydrogen bonds than a saturated fat with the same number of carbon atoms, unsaturated fats will yield slightly less energy during metabolism than saturated fats with the same number of carbon atoms. Saturated fats can stack themselves in a closely packed arrangement, so they can freeze easily and are typically solid at room temperature.

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Essential Fatty Acids

Essential Fatty Acids or EFAs have a similar function and need like vitamins; however they are required in much larger doses. Essential fatty acids or EFAs cannot be made by the body, and therefore must be obtained from the diet. There are two EFAs - linoleic or LA and alpha-linolenic or LNA, they are both classified as Omega fats. LA is an omega-6 fatty acid and LNA is an omega-3 fatty acids. Both are considered polyunsaturated fatty acids. Although both are essential, getting enough omega-3 fatty acid tends to be more challenging than omega-6. Most people consume much higher amounts of omega-6 or LA than omega-3 or LNA, causing an even greater deficiency in the body. EFAs are necessary for growth, the integrity of cell membranes and the synthesis of important hormone-like substances called eicosanoids, which have important effects on the immune, inflammatory response, cardiovascular and central nervous system. Eicosanoids act locally, in response to an immediate need around the tissues from which they are produced, and are not stored. EFAs are essentials for many of our bodys processes and they should not be overlooked as an important part of a recovery plan. Some of the important functions of EFAs are as follows:

  • Help regulate oxygen use, electron transport and energy production
  • Important in nerve, muscle, and cell membrane functions, as well as transmitting neuron firing in the muscles
  • Play a vital role in cognitive function including memory and mood
  • Involved in regulation of pituitary gland, exocrine and endocrine functions such as metabolism, body temperature, blood sugar and insulin control, thyroid function, carbohydrate metabolism, and nervous system regulation, and the most important to bodybuilding control over hormonal processes including testosterone regulation.
  • Lubricates joints and improves mineralization of bones
  • Help transport cholesterol
  • Improve digestion of the gut
  • Build the immune system and regulates inflammatory response
  • Are precursors to prostaglandins which can stimulate lipolysis or fat utilization, regulate blood pressure, platelet stickiness and kidney function; a delicate balance between PGs with opposing functions, in part determined by omega-6 and omega-3 intake, determines the health of our cardiovascular system.
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Benefits of Dietary Fat on Bodybuilding

Higher fat diets have been shown to help reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines - messenger molecules that initiate inflammation, as well as free radicals. This can be good and bad. The inflammatory process is needed to initiate tissue recovery; however, it can also trigger immune response including swelling and pain that is common during training for a bodybuilding show. A moderate fat diet can help decrease immune depression, while at the same time allow for proper recovery of the muscle tissue. It has been shown that athletes who train hard and cut back on fats may increase their susceptibility to infections and inflammation. The level of fat in a bodybuilder’s diet will be dependent on training regime and each individual’s own unique needs. In general total fat intake should be kept to 20 - 35% of total calories consumed throughout the day. Most sources of fat should come from the EFAs including PUFAs or MUFA sources, while saturated fats should be limited to less than 10% of your calories. As previously mentioned, many functions of the EFA’s can have a direct impact on the body’s ability to recover, including hormonal, immune and muscle function, therefore it is important to include EFAs within the bodybuilding diet, either from food sources or supplemented for optimal training results.

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Dietary Sources of Fat for the Bodybuilder

Monounsaturated Fats

A monounsaturated fatty acid or MUFA contains a single incidence of double bonds along its chain. Monounsaturated fatty acids (oleic acid) are produced by the body and are found in fats of both plant and animal origin. Animal sources of oleic acid are usually found along with saturated fatty acids and include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, dairy products, eggs, and some fish. Oleic acid can make up from 20 to 50% of the fats in these foods. Plant sources include olive, canola (rapeseed), and peanut oils as well as the foods from which these oils are extracted. Nuts also provide a significant source of monounsaturated fat, including almonds, walnuts, avocados, pistachios, and macadamia nuts. A significant intake of monounsaturated fats may improve blood cholesterol levels and have a positive effect on insulin levels, helping regulate blood sugar levels.

Polyunsaturated Fats

A polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA would feature two or more connections along its chain where two carbon atoms are double-bonded. Most liquid fats like vegetable and fish oils are polyunsaturated. This type of fat is found mostly in plant-based foods and oils. Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), like MUFAs may also improve blood cholesterol levels and may help decrease risk of type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acid is one type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 can be found in some types of fatty fish, and can help decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. They may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid

The Omega-3's are the most important fat to the bodybuilding diet. They increase fatty acid oxidation (burning of fat), and decrease lipogenesis (fat formation), increase basal metabolic rates and lower cholesterol. Omega-3 fatty acids also provide an anabolic effect by increasing the binding of IGF-1 to skeletal muscle and improving insulin sensitivity, even on diets high in fat which have a tendency to decrease insulin sensitivity. As previously mentioned, Omega-3's also stimulate prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are eicosanoids that regulate activity in body cells on a moment-to-moment basis and are involved in critical functions like blood pressure regulation, insulin sensitivity, immune system and anti-inflammatory responses. They're also involved in literally hundreds of other functions, many of which have yet to be fully identified in research.

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Sources of Omega-3

Flax Seed Oil

Flax Seed Oil provides a concentrated dose of Omega-3, in addition to provide a number of vitamins and minerals. Hemp oil is another rich source of Omega- 3. Flax provides 45 - 65 percent of LNA and approximately only 15 percent LA. A minimum of 5 grams of flaxseed oil per day will ensure the necessary EFAs needed in the diet.

Fish Oils

Fish provides the best source of Omeg-3, they are rich in Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which can increase the body’s fat burning ability, decrease body fat and help preserve the body’s muscle tissue by limiting the breakdown of muscle tissue. Fish oil can also help lower blood cholesterol levels; have vasodilatory effects and protective immune benefits. EPA has also been shown to decrease the production of arachidonic acid from DGLA thus decreasing the production of some of the bad prostaglandins. Fish oil also seems to have significant anti-inflammatory effects and protective effects on joint cartilage. Although the best source of fish oils is from eating fish, it can be impractical to eat large amounts of fish; fish oil supplements can provide a concentrated dose of omega-3, rich in EPA and DHA. Aim for a dose between 1 - 3 g per day of EPA and DHA for maximum results.

Omega-6 Fatty Acid

The other EFA is Omega-6, this as previously mentioned is much easier to obtain in the diet, and is typically found in corn, soy, canola, safflower and sunflower oil. Another commonly supplemented Omega-6 is Evening Primrose Oil or GLA which is converted into arachidonic acid, to help produce prostaglandins.

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Good Sources of Fats


  • Almonds and Almond oil
  • Avocados and Avocado oil
  • Corn oil
  • Evening Primrose oil
  • Hazelnut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Peanut Butter and Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sesame seeds and oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sunflower seeds and oil


  • Canola oil
  • Cod liver oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Flaxseeds
  • Halibut
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Sesame oil
  • Sesame seeds
  • Tuna
  • Walnut oil
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Bad Fats

Fats from red meat, eggs and dairy products contain saturated fats, which have a tendency to raise the bad cholesterol, low density lipoprotein or LDL. These fats can provide some benefit to the body, stearic acid and medium chains saturated fatty acids have little effect on cholesterol and can be a suitable compact form of energy. However, that being said saturated fats should be kept to a minimum in any diet.

Saturated Fat Sources

* Avoid or use very sparingly

  • Animal-fat shortening
  • Beef fat
  • Butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Cottonseed oil
  • Egg yolks
  • Fatty meats
  • Full-fat milk products
  • Lard
  • Palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Tropical oils
  • Vegetable shortening

Trans Fats

Hydrogenation involves heating oil in a vacuum and then forcing hydrogen through it under pressure. The process is continued until the required degree of hydrogenation is achieved. Hydrogenated or refined fats were a common ingredient found in many processed foods, not so long ago. Not only did these processes destroy any natural qualities present in the natural oils, they created by-products that were harmful to health. The most common hydrogenated fat was trans fatty acid. This bad fat was found to have significant adverse effects on blood cholesterol and increased the risk of heart disease. By competing with EFAs these fats lead to EFA deficiencies and subsequently to a host of other health problems. Trans fatty acids were found in refined vegetable oils, shortenings, almost all margarines and other oil-based foods, and even in baked and prepared snack foods such as cookies, crackers, and chips. Large quantities of unnatural trans fatty acids are also found as food contaminants during excessive heating of cooking oils for deep-frying and other excessive heat-requiring mass food preparation procedures. They've been found to raise overall cholesterol levels, lower HDL, decrease testosterone and insulin response, adversely affect liver enzyme activity and impair the immune system. They've thus been linked to heart disease, cancer and other diseases associated with aging. Much of the problem resides with the fact that the shape of a fatty acid is essential to its proper functioning. While trans fatty acids have the same exact number of carbon and hydrogen atoms as the original fatty acid (known as the "cis-fatty acid"), its shape has been greatly changed. This change in shape, from "cis" fatty acid to "trans", causes competition for existing enzymes. As a result, the cis-fatty acids are unable to carry out their proper biological role. Recently, several studies have pointed to the adverse health effects of hydrogenated fats and the trans fatty acids including an increased incidence of heart problems, with a strong risk factor leading to coronary heart disease. As a result, of this research, trans fats have now been removed from most commercially produced and processed foods.

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