Fat is a big deal.
Yet most of us avoid it.
It doesn’t just change the shape of our bodies, it shapes how we think, feel, and how we behave.
However, most people are still opting for low-fat goods that offer very little nutrition and let's be honest, taste awful (study).
And I bet you think this doesn't affect you as a skinny guy, right?
Here's why it matters:
- It helps us get in the calories we need to build muscle
- Our brain needs it to function optimally
- It's absolutely delicious
And skipping it could be disastrous to the success of your bulking diet.
So let's dive into why it's even included in diet plans to start with, and learn what makes it crucial.
What is fat, scientifically?
You most likely know what foods you find fat in, but on a scientific level what the heck are they, and what's their actual purpose for being put into our system in the first place?
Fats are organic molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen, joined in long groups called hydrocarbons. The length and arrangement of these hydrocarbon chains, and their interaction with each other, determines the fat type.
Biochemically, this only includes a molecule called triglycerides (triacylglycerols).
When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. We then store these in our fat cells. Hormones later release energy between meals.
Fat falls under a bigger biochemical group called lipids. Lipids have a lot going on and include fats and oils, waxes, some vitamins (fat-soluble), some hormones (steroid hormones) and compound lipids (phospholipids, glycolipids, and lipoproteins).
LIPIDS - these are a water-soluble molecule that includes things like fats, oils, cholesterol, and waxes.
However, when typically talking about fat, we don't refer to them as lipids. Instead, we often group them into structural (and functional) classifications that our human body can do things with...
The structural (and functional) arrangements
- Fatty acids - a chain of hydrogen and carbon that are the building blocks of fat (much like protein's amino acids)
- Triglycerides (also known as triacylglycerols), diglycerides, and monoglycerides - the main storage for fats in the body
- Sterols (cholesterol, bile salts, and phytosterols) - a steroid nucleus
- Phospholipids - helps brain function through helping our cellular membranes
- Sphingolipids - a class of lipids with a particular activity in our nervous system
Although fat lipids are a broad topic to cover, I will focus on the types that matter the most for building a body that not only looks great but functions well.
There are a variety of fats (which we're about to get to) that differ in length (hydrocarbon length) and depending on this (and 2 other factors) fats can drastically differ from each other. Some help us to live longer, some energise our bodies, and others work against us in nasty ways that keep the grim reaper in business.
However, when we eat fats that are good for us, we also swallow a whole bunch of benefits for our body...
What benefits can we get from fat?
Although this is geared towards building muscle, the benefits go beyond just helping us build muscle or gaining more strength.
Eating the right fats does that by helping us get our calories in, (which is important for skinny guys); however, they do an even better job at making us think or feel better.
Here are some of the ways fat helps:
- It provides us with energy through not only calories (after all, it’s the most energy-dense macronutrient) but also through improving other things…
- It helps make and balance hormones, particularly our steroid hormones (such as sex hormones and corticosteroid hormones).
- It forms our cell membranes, which regulate the transport of substances in and out of our cells - without this, our bodies can’t function.
- It helps transport the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K which can help the body fight against illness and infection (study), increase testosterone (study) and helps to prevent coronary heart disease. (study)
- It helps our brain, and nervous system function to the best of its ability (source, study) and a lack of it has been shown to impair cognitive function and increase the likelihood of diseases.
- It gives us two game-changing fatty acids that we can’t make on our own (omega-3 and omega-6.) ?.
Each lipid has its own assigned function to help the body run smoothly. But don’t worry, if you don’t fancy hearing the details, you can click here (and we'll fast track you through the queue).
Fatty Acids - What are they?
When we talk about fat in our diet, fatty acids are the kind we're typically talking about.
You've most likely heard them categorised as saturated and unsaturated fats.
But it goes beyond that under the surface. Fatty acids are made up of three things and, like amino acids, are the building blocks of fat.
They're made of caterpillar-looking hydrocarbon chains…1
The methyl group (CH3) on one end (often known as the “omega” end, and written as ω); and Carboxyl group (COOH) on the other (commonly known as the “alpha” end and written as ɑ).
And the three things these vary in are:
- Length of the range of carbons (usually referred to as the chain a fat belongs to).
- Isomerization (aka are they trans fats or not).
- Type of fat group.
Each of these contributes differently to how fat is digested in the body and therefore brings its own set of benefits.
The main 4-fatty acid lengths
1. Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA): Fewer than 6 carbons long.
These aren't found in food but are made via friendly gut bacteria (when the fibre is fermented in the colon). They help reduce the risk of heart disease, inflammatory diseases, and type-2 diabetes to name a few.
They also play a significant role in helping our colon reach optimal health and can have an impact on the production of energy and vitamins.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are rarely found in whole foods and are usually found in the form of dairy fat and tropical oils, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
You may have seen them making the headlines in recent years for being one of the best things since ‘low-fat’ to help the fat loss industry (oh the irony).
Although the research is warped with MCT oil (a supplement that comprises MCT fats) the proven effectiveness of MCT is strong.
Not to mention the fact that coconut oil is pretty damn delicious and easy to consume, meaning it'll help get your calories up without punishing yourself.
Long-chain fatty acids (LCFA): Between 13 to 21 carbons long.
These are the ones we usually want in our diet, and the evidence has shown time and time again that they're undeniably great for us.
These are omega-3 and omega-6. Which I cover in detail later on in this guide.
Very long-chain fatty acids (VLCFA): 22 or more carbons long.
If that's you, you'll probably already know.
The 3 types of fats you want in your diet as a skinny guy trying to build muscle.
As you now know, fatty acids are split into saturated, and unsaturated fats. Yet, we can take it a step further and split them into three groups:
1.1 - Monounsaturated fatty acids in which only one carbon is unsaturated, of missing a hydrogen.
1.2 - Polyunsaturated fatty acids in which more than one carbon is unsaturated, thus missing four or more hydrogens)
2.0 - Saturated fatty acids in which are a complete set of hydrogens bonded to the carbons, and no double bonds in the hydrocarbon skeleton.
Now this all might sound a bit sciency (we're the superhuman lab after all) but this just means there's 3 groups of common fat types, some good, some bad. Simple.
Let's take a look at each one.
The Unsaturated Group
The unsaturated group of fats (mono and poly) are what are usually referred to as "good" fats. They're the kind most people talk about wanting more of in their diet and often provide the benefits we’ve already covered. (study)
Unsaturated fats are those that have double bonds in their chemical structure. The difference between them and saturated fats is if only some hydrogens have bonded, the fat is unsaturated. In contrast, if all of the space is filled, they're saturated.
1. Monounsaturated fatty acids
Because of their structure, monounsaturated fats are usually (but not always) liquid at room temperature.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil
- Most nuts
- High-oleic safflower and sunflower oils
They've been shown to help to reduce the risk of heart diseases (study, study, study) by lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) when used with a calorie -controlled diet (aka your diet not being purely olive oil).
They can also help with the way our body uses carbs, because of their help with insulin sensitivity (how our cells respond to insulin) which has been shown to help with type-2 diabetes (study, study).
But what about increasing muscle growth?
There's been proof that monounsaturated fats can increase testosterone production (study) and help decrease joint inflammation (study, study) which can become an increasing problem when you lift more weight.
2. Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
These are very similar to monounsaturated fats, however, they have more than one unsaturated carbon.
These are what we call "Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)" which means the body can't make them and needs to get them from food.
Good sources of polyunsaturated fats fish oil, fish (salmon, herring, sardines, trout) and flaxseed.
However, not all EFA's are created equal…
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats
These are the kinds of fats we want in our diet.
Well, omega-3 is anyway (the two are VERY different).
They’re both part of the EFA group and have huge benefits like helping to reduce the risk of and/or reverse type-2 diabetes. They also improve our health markers, skin, hair and obviously body composition.
These are so important that I did an entire article on them.
Inside this, we’ll tell you all about the differences, how they help you (or harm you), foods that contain them and a bunch more.
Omega-3 vs Omega-6
The Saturated Group
This is the big bad one that we’re all warned against the most.
Potentially most dangerous because it’s found in all things delicious.
But there's more to them than just ‘bad’ fat.
What is saturated fat from a scientific standpoint?
Saturated fats are molecules that don’t have double bonds between carbon molecules (they’re saturated with hydrogen).
Because of the way they're formed, they're solid (or semi-solid) at room temperature.
They're usually found in things like beef, lamb, pork, butter, cheese, coconut oil (the best oil for high temperature cooking) and dairy products that are made from whole, or reduced-fat milk.
This might come as a shock to you.
Because when most people think of saturated fats, things like doughnuts, cakes, and soda-drinks may come to mind 2.
Instead, saturated fats are more likely to be found in the whole foods that provide us with the exact macros and nutrients we need to build muscle, function well, and build a body we're happy with.
So you might be wondering...
Is saturated fat good or bad for us?
This is a long-standing, divisive debate in nutrition circles.
Some believe a little bit is harmless, some believe it's amazing and can be consumed in large amounts without any issues (I'm looking at you keto dieters3) and some think it should be avoided at all costs (like people who already have a pre-existing heart condition).
However, the general consensus from people who don't follow a nutrition belief is often that saturated fats are ‘bad’. And there's some truth to that, IF consumed in excessive amounts.
However, from the sources listed above, you'd most likely struggle to consume enough to cause any issues.
So why is it seen this way? And how can it actually help us?
Why saturated fat has a bad reputation
Back in the 1940s, heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US. This was the key investigative focus of Dr Ancel Keys’ study "Seven Countries: A Multivariate Analysis of Death and Coronary Heart Disease" (source).
In this research, Keys claimed to spot a correlation between diets high in saturated fat and high cholesterol, leading to an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease.
However, despite people remaining unconvinced by his findings even decades later, (source), Keys’ major ideas were endorsed and promoted at the time by the American Heart Association (AHA). AHA labelled saturated fat as bad and promoted a variation of the Mediterranean diet (less meat, more grains, vegetables, fruits, and some olive oil) as the necessary alternative way of eating to reduce heart disease (study).
And with a big corporation like the AHA backing these ideas, they were trusted (naturally).
Over the last decade or so, many studies have relooked at the effect of saturated fat on the heart.
"There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to know whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat."
So, although many people worry about saturated fat being the issue (and inflammation caused by excessive amounts can be), it might not be that black and white.
There hasn't been massive amounts of evidence to say ‘EAT SATURATED FAT = HAVE HEART DISEASE’, although the evidence is still open for discussion, and other health factors are affected by high amounts of "bad" fats, outside of just heart issues.
It goes without saying that people with certain medical conditions or cholesterol problems should watch their saturated fat intake, as they are prone to more of a risk.
So, if it isn't as bad as we think, what should you have?
How saturated fat can help you
Because it increases cholesterol, saturated fat has the benefit of increasing free testosterone (study, study) which is great for increasing strength, muscle growth, immune system strength, and sexual function.
They contain fat-soluble vitamins, meaning you're more likely to absorb the vitamins from other foods (source). They're also great for cooking vs polyunsaturated fat (study) which have been shown to increase your risk of cancer when used in cooking.
Lauric and stearic acids, two things found in saturated fats, can actually help regulate cholesterol levels. (study).
A note on cholesterol
Excess cholesterol can be an issue, however, we need cholesterol for making our cell membranes, as well as making other structures such as hormones.
In fact, most of our bodily cholesterol is created by the liver and doesn’t come from the foods we eat.
It's also controlled by our genetics 5 less than our food. Meaning, if you have a higher cholesterol level than you expected, have a look at the generation above you, rather than your diet.
The main issue with cholesterol comes from the split between LDLs and HDLs - keywords you may have heard when the topic of good and bad cholesterol comes up.
It's important to realise that the word "cholesterol" is often used inaccurately when referring to HDL and LDL. These are (lipo)proteins that carry cholesterol around and not cholesterol themselves.
LDLs (Low-density lipoproteins) - are what people refer to as "bad" cholesterol. They are lipoproteins that cholesterol attaches to travel in the bloodstream, carry fat to our cells, and can oxidize in blood vessels. This can lead to them forming plaques that can lead to heart disease. We need them, but not in excess.
HDLs (High-density lipoproteins) - are what people refer to as "good" cholesterol. They help clear cholesterol up by shuttling it back to the liver (to be recycled).
Saturated fats may also be stored within muscle cells (as intramuscular triglycerides) which can visibly pump up muscles while training (study).
This is most commonly obvious when guys reduce saturated fat intake for a while and then eat it on a "cheat day" during training.
If you've ever heard of fat being damaging to our health, then these have most likely come up in conversation.
These days trans-fats are pretty tricky to come across (as they're banned in most places), and thankfully there's plenty of alternatives out there that stop them being in even the "worst" of foods.
However, I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't briefly cover these, as skinny guys tend to abuse fat and carb heavy foods all the time, due to the fact it doesn't visually show on the abs.
Although the general viewpoint on fat is a bit blurred (with the mainstream media), one thing is sure, these are bad.
So what are trans fats and why are they bad for us?
Although they can occur naturally, via dairy and meat, the main corporations that are an issue come from industrial fat processing.
As mentioned, fatty acids are made up of hydrocarbons (the caterpillars). Where a carbon-carbon double bond exists, it can have two choices - it becomes a "cis", or a "trans" configuration.
Cis configuration: How a polyunsaturated fatty acid should typically be.
Trans configuration: An unsaturated fatty acid with a particular chemical structure that makes it more like a saturated fat; most often occurring in manufactured products
Most naturally occurring unsaturated fatty acids tend to fall into the "cis configuration".
However, through a process called hydrogenation is when things can take a turn. Hydrogenation is a process where an unsaturated fat in the form of a liquid, is turned into a solid fat by adding hydrogen.6
This is done to stop food from spoiling, as it gives food a much longer shelf life while decreasing ours.
Some of the issues trans fats have been proven to cause are:
- Lower HDL
- Suppress the excretion of bile acids;
- Increase our own cholesterol production;
- Compete with essential fats for transport into the cells; and
- Create and worsen essential fatty acid deﬁciencies.
Which over time adds up to a boatload of internal issues like affecting our heart health, increasing the risk of diabetes, blood vessels and increase the risk of cancer
Although Trans-fats are rare they might (according to the FDA) be found in a few things (Source):
- Crackers, cookies, cakes, frozen pies, and other baked goods
- Snack foods (such as microwave popcorn)
- Frozen pizza
- Vegetable shortenings and some stick margarine
- Coffee creamer
- Refrigerated dough products (such as biscuits and rolls)
- Ready-to-use frostings
However, not all fats that might be considered trans are bad for us...
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
A naturally occurring trans-fat (opposite to the ones described) which is formed in the rumen (multi-chambered stomach) of a cow or sheep, doesn’t seem to harm us.
It's typically found in beef and dairy and is often promoted as a health supplement to aid in fat-loss. However, research on CLA is unreliable (even for obesity) and it has zero benefits to offer skinny-guys, so I wouldn't add it to your supplement stack.
We usually consume a mix of all fats.
Contrary to what most people think, our food typically has several different types of fat, even the kind we believe falls into one kind.
For example, while most people think eggs are high in saturated fat, eggs actually contain more monounsaturated fatty acids than saturated fatty acids. Indeed, 39% of the fat in eggs is saturated, while 43% comes from monounsaturated fat and 18% from polyunsaturated fat.
How much fat should you have in your bulking diet?
Here’s where things get a bit tricky.
We usually want to have the remaining of our calories coming from fats.
If your carbs and protein make up 70% of your calories already, then 30% would be made from fat.
This would come to 0.6–0.7 grams/pound of body weight.
If you decide up your protein and carbs, then your fat intake percentage would adjust.
I wouldn’t recommend going below 20% though, and would always aim for 30% when possible to optimise your health.
Recommended Fat Sources
|EAT MORE||EAT SOME||EAT LESS|
|olive oil||Virgin and light olive oil||Bacon|
|Extra virgin olive oil||Expeller pressed canola oil||Sausage|
|Walnut oil||Sesame oil||Butter|
|Marinades and dressings with oils in this category||Flaxseed oil||Margarine|
|Avocado and avocado oil||Coconut oil / milk||Processed cheese|
|Cheese, aged > 6 months||Peanut oil and regular peanut butter||Corn oil|
|Egg yolks||Dark chocolate||Cottonseed oil|
|Seeds: chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin and sesame||Marinades and dressings with oils in this category||Sunflower oil|
|Cashews||Fish and algae oil||Canola oil|
|Almonds||Cheese aged <6 months||Safflower oil|
|Brazil nuts||Flavored nuts and nut butters||Marinades and dressings with oils in this category|
|Pecans||Trail mix||Vegetable oil|
|Olives||High oleic safflower oil||Fat-rich foods with 10+ g added sugar|
|Pesto made w/ extra virgin olive oil||Hydrogenated oils|
|Nut butters from other nuts in this category||Shortening|
|Fresh unprocessed coconut|
The Superhuman Lab Summary
So, what have we learned?
In short, we know that finding the right balance of fats increases muscle growth, strengthens the immune system and holds benefits for sexual function.
As a skinny guy, you might feel fats aren’t designed to work with you. If this article has shown you anything, it’s hopefully how false that is.
The reality is, you need fats to maximise your muscle and feel great in the process.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is skipping them as I did in the early days of my skinny-guy transformation.
Instead, focus your efforts on getting in fat sources that fall into the mono and polyunsaturated category. Foods like:
- Fatty fish
- Cold-pressed olive oil
- Virgin coconut oil
- Fish oil
Then you’ll want to get in your selection of saturated fat:
- Fatty meats
- Dark chocolate
- The odd pizza or doughnut (in moderation!)
Be sure to AVOID trans fats at all costs. They offer zero benefits.
The science behind fats might seem a little heavy and complicated, but putting the knowledge into practice doesn’t have to be.
As long as you strike a delicate balance across all types of fat, your muscle-building goals will stay within reach.
? tip to Ryan Andrews from Precision Nutrition for this reference ↵
It's common for people to refer to coke as full-fat when in reality it’s full-sugar↵
The Keto diet is usually done on a low protein, high fat diet to increase fat loss. It's common for people to consume a lot of bacon, and butter.↵
This is a study that looks at a bunch of studies, instead of one in isolation. They're usually a lot more accurate and the evidence is stronger.↵
Despite eating well, I have a higher cholesterol level due to my parents’ genetics - they have high cholesterol too.↵
There are two types of hydrogenation, full and partial: Full hydrogenation makes a saturated fatty acid from a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Partial hydrogenation makes a trans-fatty acid from a polyunsaturated fatty acid.↵