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Summary:

  • Why you NEED TO KNOW about the 3 different types of fatty acids and understand how each contribute to the amount of body fat and muscle mass that you put on or lose.
  • How long chain saturated fats consistently get poor results when it comes to fat loss and lean mass growth
  • Some alternative options that you can replace saturated fats with to better optimize your body composition!

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Full (Edited) Transcript:

In this video, we are going to be discussing why saturated fat is probably not the best fat to focus on for body composition.

In this article I’m going to be focusing exclusively on saturated fat’s effect on body composition, which involves either a change in muscle mass or fat mass. I am not going to get into its effect on health becuase that is a very large topic that needs its own article to cover all the information!

There are a lot of myths online about people saying that saturated fat is actually good for body composition. Most of these myths stem from a couple of correlational studies that showed that a higher intake of saturated fat correlated with higher levels of testosterone. Extrapolating from this, people have thought that this would mean it would be easier to gain muscle or lose fat.

The unfortunate part is that the studies that actually measured the changes in body composition from eating excess saturated fat consistently showed that saturated fat tends to increase the fat mass of the participants with much less of an increase in lean mass. (1, 2)

But before we talk about this research, let’s just briefly go over the structures of these fatty acids so that you have a good understanding of WHY these results occured.

The 3 Categories of Fatty Acids

Understanding the differences between fatty acids will help you not only better understand what’s going on with the research, but it will also help you choose better options when you are out at the grocery store, for example.

The three categories of fatty acids are:

  • Saturated fats, with no double bonds
  • Monounsaturated fats, with one double bond, and
  • Polyunsaturated fats, with more than one double bond

(For this article, I am specifically referring to “long-chain” saturated fats. These are the fats found in animal fat, lard, palm oil, and butter, for example. I am NOT including coconut oil in this article, because 50-60% of coconut oil is “medium chain” which is easier to oxidize for energy and does not have the same effects on body composition as the other longer chain saturated fats! I am also excluding dairy from this article because different dairy products [cheese vs butter vs keifer] have different effects on the body and deserves its own post.)

Below is a picture of an example of each group. Steric acid is the saturated fat found in cocoa butter, oleic acid is the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, avocado oil, and most nuts, and linolenic acid is the polyunsaturated fat found in flaxseed oil, chia seeds, and walnuts.

The double bonds are important because they allow oxygen to get into the center chain of the fat and split it apart, which is needed to oxidize the fatty acid for energy!

Here are some examples of the different types of fats:

  • Saturated fats: palm oil, animal fat, butter, lard, and cocoa butter
  • Monounsaturated fats: olive oil, avocado oil, algae oil, canola oil, high oleic sunflower oil, and most nuts (some monounsaturated fats are also present in animal fats)
  • Polyunsaturated fats: flaxseed oil, fatty fish, walnuts, most seeds, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, and other “vegetable oils”

(The oils in italics are ones that I do not recommend buying or consuming in anything but low amounts because they are highly processed, refined, and/or prone to oxidation when cooking.)


1. Because the double bonds make it easier to oxidize the fat for energy, it is more difficult for the body to oxidize saturated fat than any other type of fatty acid!

2. If the body has a hard time oxidizing a fat for energy, then it will be more likely to become stored.

3. Thus, saturated fats are the easiest fats to get stored as fat and the hardest to oxidize for energy, contributing more than other fats to an increase it overall fat mass.


Now, this isn’t me just saying this based on theory. This concept agrees with virtually ALL of both the animal (12, 13, 14, 15, 16) and human data that we have. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

So let’s go over one or two of these studies really quickly.

In 2014, 41 participants were randomized to consume muffins for 7 weeks that contained either sunflower oil (a polyunsaturated fat) or palm oil (a saturated fat used in a lot of processed foods including protein bars).

Muffins were baked in large batches under standardized conditions in a metabolic kitchen at Uppsala University. Muffins were added to the habitual diet, and the amount was individually adjusted to achieve a 3% weight gain. The number of muffins consumed per day was individually adjusted weekly (i.e., altered by ±1 muffin/day depending on the rate of weight gain of the individual).

Except for fat quality, the muffins were identical with regard to energy, fat, protein, carbohydrate, and cholesterol content, as well as taste and structure. The composition of the muffins provided 51% of energy from fat, 5% from protein, and 44% from carbohydrates.


At the end of the study, both groups gained 1.6 kg in weight; however, the MRI assessment showed that the saturated fat group gained more liver fat (14 fold, mainly because the polyunsaturated group hardly gained any liver fat), total fat (1.5 fold), and visceral fat (2 fold), but less lean tissue (3 fold) compared with subjects in the polyunsaturated group. (2)


By the way, visceral fat is the type of fat that you especially DO NOT want to gain, because it is most responsible for insulin resistance and liver issues.

This type of result makes sense when you understand the chemistry of fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fats, with their multiple double bonds, makes it a lot easier for the body to oxidize them for energy. The saturated fat, with no double bonds, makes it hard for oxygen to break that fat apart and use is for energy.

How to Get More Easily Oxidizable Fats in Your Diet

So now we know that replacing saturated fats with other types of fats will be beneficial for body composition.

However, there are some types of fats that you do not want to consume a lot of (or at all). These are the refined vegetable oils I mentioned earlier: soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and possibly even canola oil.

The reason you don’t want to over-consume these is that they are entirely the omega-6 type of polyunsaturated fats. The omega 6s compete with the omega 3s, and thus too much omega 6s combined with too little omega 3s can increase inflammation in the body generally speaking. These oils are also usually used to cook with or are used in processed food. This makes the oils likely already at least partially oxidized by the time you eat the food, which contributes to oxidative stress in the body. (This can deplete things like vitamins E and C, for example.)

However, there are safe and beneficial ways to get more polyunsaturated fats in your diet, and all of these suggestions include using whole food except for the flaxseed oil and fish oil suggestions. (If you don’t know why eating whole food is vitally important, make sure you check out my episode on polyphenols).

Some options for polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Walnuts
  • Ground flax or chia seeds (yes, you do need to grind chia seeds too, otherwise you absorb zero omega 3s)
  • Hulled hemp seeds
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Fatty fish or fish oil
  • Pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)

To get more monounsaturated fats, some great options include:

  • Olives and olive oil
  • Avocados and avocado oil
  • Most nuts (almonds, pistachios, macadamia, etc.)

I hope that this episode helped you understand one way in which you can optimize your diet for greater muscle growth and enhanced fat loss!


P.S. If you want more evidence-based health information LIKE THIS, then make sure you subscribe to my FREE weekly newsletter!


References:

1. Bjermo H, Iggman D, Kullberg J, Dahlman I, Johansson L, Persson L, Berglund J, Pulkki K, Basu S, Uusitupa M, Rudling M, Arner P, Cederholm T, Ahlström H, Risérus U. Effects of n-6 PUFAs compared with SFAs on liver fat, lipoproteins, and inflammation in abdominal obesity: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 May;95(5):1003-12. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.030114. Epub 2012 Apr 4. PMID: 22492369.

2. Rosqvist F, Iggman D, Kullberg J, Cedernaes J, Johansson HE, Larsson A, Johansson L, Ahlström H, Arner P, Dahlman I, Risérus U. Overfeeding polyunsaturated and saturated fat causes distinct effects on liver and visceral fat accumulation in humans. Diabetes. 2014 Jul;63(7):2356-68. doi: 10.2337/db13-1622. Epub 2014 Feb 18. PMID: 24550191.

3. Piers LS, Walker KZ, Stoney RM, Soares MJ, O’Dea K. Substitution of saturated with monounsaturated fat in a 4-week diet affects body weight and composition of overweight and obese men. Br J Nutr. 2003 Sep;90(3):717-27. doi: 10.1079/bjn2003948. PMID: 13129479.

4. Fernández de la Puebla RA, Fuentes F, Pérez-Martinez P, Sánchez E, Paniagua JA, López-Miranda J, Pérez-Jiménez F. A reduction in dietary saturated fat decreases body fat content in overweight, hypercholesterolemic males. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2003 Oct;13(5):273-7. doi: 10.1016/s0939-4753(03)80031-5. PMID: 14717059.

5. Duarte CK, Dos Santos ALT, Kirst C, et al. Dietary source of saturated fat and percentage body fat of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: A cross-sectional study. Food Sci Nutr. 2018;7(1):195-204. Published 2018 Nov 15. doi:10.1002/fsn3.853

6. Kien CL, Bunn JY, Tompkins CL, et al. Substituting dietary monounsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with increased daily physical activity and resting energy expenditure and with changes in mood [published correction appears in Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):511]. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(4):689-697. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.051730

7. Kien CL, Bunn JY, Ugrasbul F. Increasing dietary palmitic acid decreases fat oxidation and daily energy expenditure. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Aug;82(2):320-6. doi: 10.1093/ajcn.82.2.320. PMID: 16087974; PMCID: PMC1314972.

8. Beulen Y, Martínez-González MA, van de Rest O, et al. Quality of Dietary Fat Intake and Body Weight and Obesity in a Mediterranean Population: Secondary Analyses within the PREDIMED Trial. Nutrients. 2018;10(12):2011. Published 2018 Dec 19. doi:10.3390/nu10122011

9. Paniagua JA, Gallego de la Sacristana A, Romero I, Vidal-Puig A, Latre JM, Sanchez E, Perez-Martinez P, Lopez-Miranda J, Perez-Jimenez F. Monounsaturated fat-rich diet prevents central body fat distribution and decreases postprandial adiponectin expression induced by a carbohydrate-rich diet in insulin-resistant subjects. Diabetes Care. 2007 Jul;30(7):1717-23. doi: 10.2337/dc06-2220. Epub 2007 Mar 23. PMID: 17384344.

10. Petrus P, Rosqvist F, Edholm D, et al. Saturated fatty acids in human visceral adipose tissue are associated with increased 11- β-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase type 1 expression. Lipids Health Dis. 2015;14:42. Published 2015 May 2. doi:10.1186/s12944-015-0042-1

11. Piers LS, Walker KZ, Stoney RM, Soares MJ, O’Dea K. Substitution of saturated with monounsaturated fat in a 4-week diet affects body weight and composition of overweight and obese men. Br J Nutr. 2003 Sep;90(3):717-27. doi: 10.1079/bjn2003948. PMID: 13129479.

12. Yepuri G, Marcelino H, Shahkhalili Y, Aprikian O, Macé K, Seydoux J, Miles JL, Montani JP, Dulloo AG. Dietary modulation of body composition and insulin sensitivity during catch-up growth in rats: effects of oils rich in n-6 or n-3 PUFA. Br J Nutr. 2011 Jun 28;105(12):1750-63. doi: 10.1017/S0007114510005659. Epub 2011 Jan 31. PMID: 21281526.

13. Crescenzo R, Bianco F, Mazzoli A, et al. Fat Quality Influences the Obesogenic Effect of High Fat Diets. Nutrients. 2015;7(11):9475-9491. Published 2015 Nov 16. doi:10.3390/nu7115480

14. Milanski M, Degasperi G, Coope A, et al. Saturated fatty acids produce an inflammatory response predominantly through the activation of TLR4 signaling in hypothalamus: implications for the pathogenesis of obesity. J Neurosci. 2009;29(2):359-370. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2760-08.2009

15. Bray GA, Krauss RM. Overfeeding of polyunsaturated versus saturated fatty acids reduces ectopic fat. Diabetes. 2014;63(7):2222-2224. doi:10.2337/db14-0493

16. Crescenzo R, Mazzoli A, Cancelliere R, Bianco F, Giacco A, Liverini G, Dulloo AG, Iossa S. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Stimulate De novo Lipogenesis and Improve Glucose Homeostasis during Refeeding with High Fat Diet. Front Physiol. 2017 Mar 23;8:178. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00178. PMID: 28386235; PMCID: PMC5362646.


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