How Much Fat Should Fighters Eat?
By Dan Garner
Most people think of fat in the fighters diet as a bad thing.
They think that they are going to get fat if they eat it. Or, the images that pop to mind are bacon, butter, lard, and perhaps how the governments recommendations have been making them feel as though fat is going to give them an immediate heart attack once they finish their cheeseburger.
Of course, none of this stuff is true. Extreme fat intakes aren’t recommended, and neither is going low fat. When you dig into the scientific literature, you’ll find the truth almost always lies in the middle.
To be clear, the topic of fat intake and its effect on our metabolism and physiology is an absolutely massive topic. So to save you from sitting here for the next two weeks reading things you will never need to know, I’m going to keep it real simple and discuss how fat intake can impact the body composition of combat sports athletes.
And to keep it even more simple, we are only going to discuss the major fat types within the fighters diet , and not the never-ending list of other chemicals which are also technically defined as lipids.
The major fat sources we are going to cover in respect to body composition are saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.
Right off the bat, it’s important to point out that dietary fat intake has been demonstrated repeatedly to have a linear correlation with most anabolic hormones in the body (1). Getting an adequate amount of fat can increase testosterone production, and thus play an integral role towards performance, recovery, and training adaptations for combat sports athletes can all be benefited by these heightened levels of testosterone.
Although, dietary fat is not just anabolic (tissue building) through increasing levels of certain anabolic hormones, nor is it only anabolic through simply providing plenty of calories. What we see in the literature is that it is a little more complex than this, and that certain components of fat (known as fatty acids) have unique anabolic properties that can impact both muscle gaining and fat loss.
Let’s break each fat down and have a look at what we can extrapolate towards combat sports athletes.
Monounsaturated fats (MUF)
Some research has been conducted into the area of anabolism from MUF, but not as much as we would like to see. What we can draw upon that is the results from Noakes’s research comparing three different weight loss diets (2).
What was found here was that the high unsaturated fat fighters diet had an outcome that created significantly more lean muscle mass retention than the other 2 diets, which was super surprising since another fighters diet group in this study was eating considerably more protein.
Although this is not causation, it definitely creates a strong correlation between the potential for MUF to have anabolic effects on our body that we don’t completely understand just yet.
Saturated fat (SF)
When it comes to saturated fat, there is a considerable amount of data suggesting that it is absolutely anabolic in the long term due to its clear ability to raise anabolic hormones in the body (more so than other types of fats).
This is likely the reason why higher saturated fat containing proteins became known as “muscle builders” by the bodybuilding community. Red meat, eggs, milk, and cottage cheese all have a respectable amount of saturated fat in them in addition to their excellent amino acid score, giving it a 1-2 punch towards muscle growth and anabolic hormone production.
Backing this up, we’ve seen whole milk out perform skim milk as a post-workout anabolic potentiator in the past, the results of this study were particular giving a hat-tip to saturated fat since the skim milk group consumed more protein post-workout, and yet still produced a smaller anabolic response when compared to whole milk (3).
Polyunsaturated fat (PUF)
Polyunsaturated fats (not including Omega-3’s, which I’ll revisit below) seem to have a very clear anabolic role within our physiology. Something known as the LIPOGAIN project found this to be intriguing when they overfed 750 different test subjects on different eating protocols and found that the PUF group gained more than twice as much muscle and less fat than the other group (4).
Beyond this, Norris found when comparing CLA and Omega-6 that the CLA group lost a significant amount of fat with no change in lean muscle mass, but, the Omega-6 group gained a significant amount of lean muscle mass with no change in body fat (5).
This supports PUF role in anabolism, beyond the large amount of animal literature we have on this topic (not as impactful since it’s animal research, but still adds to the body of evidence we have).
Omega-3 is a real no brainer here for fighters, it almost sounds like a multi-level marketing pitch when I discuss what positive effects they can have on the body.
Omega-3’s have been shown to reduce inflammation markers, reduce blood pressure, improve the LDL to HDL ratios in the blood, reduce total cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, reduce cortisol, increase nutrient partitioning, increase testosterone, increases post-prandial anabolism, reduce depression, improve gut bacteria status by lowering LPS, improve body composition, reduce liver fat, among many other things (6-18).
A crazy amount of research demonstrates that optimizing your Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio can have a major impact on your body composition (19). The ratio can be no higher than 4:1 (meaning 4x as much omega-6 than omega-3 in your diet) but seems to be better for physiology if you can get this closer to 1:1.
To point something out particularly important for combat sports athletes, Tsuchiya showed with his data in 2016 that Omega-3’s can increase strength and muscle, but also improve the range of motion a joint can move through (20). Powerful stuff, and very combat sports specific.
To wrap this up, it is very important that combat sports athletes consume healthy fats within their diet everyday, and you can clearly see from the literature above that each fat provides its own unique impact on our body, which is why I lean heavily on the idea that we shouldn’t just focus on one.
We need all of them, the body is always after balance—not domination. The ratios from one another is very important. And it is still very important to include carbohydrates everyday, they are the prime fuel source for both the muscular system and nervous system for fighters diet during training and competition.
For fats, you should be looking to get an even distribution within your diet:
- 1/3 rd MUF
- 1/3 rd SF
- 1/3 rd PUF
And your fats should be targeting a caloric intake of 15-25% of total calories on training days, and 25-40% of total calories on non-training days. Sticking to these recommendations will optimize your fat intake to optimize your body composition and performance. Overtime, these recommendations will make their way out onto the mat or the cage and help you dominate
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