How Should You Balance Your Fat Intake?

How to Balance Your Fat Intake in lineWe’ve put to bed the misguided notion that saturated fat is out to kill you, clog your arteries, make you fat, and disfigure your unborn children. We’ve scrutinized the widely-held assumption that processed seed oils rich in omega-6 linoleic acid are the healthiest fats available, made a strong case for a fat-based metabolism, and sung the praises of monounsaturated fat. Fat is back. Fat’s been back for a long time now. But is that all there is to it? Should we eat all the saturated fat we can get? Should we avoid linoleic acid at all costs? Where does MUFA come in? Fish oil?

How much of each type of fat should we be eating?

How should we balance our fat intake between the various types?

What’s the optimal dietary fatty acid ratio, Sisson? Include decimals if you can.

There’s no single right answer. It—sorry, folks—depends on a lot of factors.

It depends on your goals, your activity levels, the rest of your diet, your genetics. Almost everything, to be honest.

But there’s one universal factor determining an optimal fat balance that everyone needs to get right: their mitochondria.

That’s what we’ll be discussing today.

Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells, converting incoming fuel into ATP—the universal energy currency used throughout the body. Without ATP, we can’t walk, run, think, climb, speak, or perform any of the tens of thousands of physiological processes required to maintain life as we know it. Mitochondrial dysfunction is implicated in almost every malady we know of and wish to avoid. I like to think of a cell’s mitochondrion as an R2 unit, keeping the X-Wing running smoothly as Luke approaches the Death Star for the final trench run. If our mitochondria don’t work, bad things happen.

As it turns out, mitochondria are surrounded by two fatty membranes whose degree of saturation regulates how well our mitochondria work. The more unsaturated the membrane fatty acids, the unhealthier the mitochondria, the less energy they produce, the more susceptible they are to oxidative damage, and the more reactive oxygen species they create. If your mitochondria are too unsaturated, the Empire wins.

Don’t believe me?

Here are some big reasons to keep your mitochondria saturated:

  • Long-lived animal species tend to have fewer unsaturated fatty acids in their mitochondrial membranes. The lower the degree of unsaturation (or higher the degree of saturation), the less oxidative stress their mitochondria generate.
  • Increasing the degree of unsaturation of mitochondrial membranes increases oxidative damage to lipid, protein, and DNA.
  • “Inhibition of fatty acid desaturation” in the mitochondrial membrane —or preventing saturated and monounsaturated fats from being converted into polyunsaturated fats—helps kill cancer cells.
  • Aging mitochondria” have increased membrane unsaturation.

Okay, that makes sense. Unsaturated fats do tend to be less stable. But where does diet come in?

Do the fats we eat determine the composition and unsaturation of the membranes surrounding our mitochondria?


Perhaps the most important fatty section of the mitochondrial membrane is cardiolipin. It’s the “heart of mitochondrial metabolism,” providing stability to the enzymes involved in ATP generation. Mitochondria with unstable cardiolipins produce less ATP and generate more reactive oxygen species. As animals age, cardiolipin grows more unstable and even begins to disappear altogether.

In most modern people and lab animals, cardiolipin contains mostly linoleic acid. The majority of studies accept this as normal and even ideal. But that’s probably due to their (and our) overwhelmingly linoleic acid-rich diets. If the “normal” diet contains a ton of vegetable oils, having lots of vegetable oil in your mitochondrial membranes is going to be “normal” too. Doesn’t mean it’s optimal.

An older rat study (PDF) found that feeding rats a diet “deficient” in linoleic acid and high in oleic acid (the MUFA found in olive oil) shifts their cardiolipin fat from 58% linoleic acid to 70% oleic acid. That’s a huge jump. What happened to these “deficient” rats?

Nothing. They were clinically normal.

Later, a study using mouse embryonic mitochondria found that replacing the cardiolipin linoleic acid with oleic acid protected the mitochondria from cell death when exposed to a toxin. In addition to resisting cell death, the LA-deficient mitochondria were also clinically normal, able to perform all the expected functions of embryonic mitochondria. Furthermore, when they introduced a substance that blocked oleic acid from entering the membrane, the mitochondria lost its resistance to the toxin.

A rat study from 2003 placed the animals on one of two diets—an extra virgin olive oil diet or a sunflower oil diet—and tracked changes to their liver, heart, and skeletal muscle mitochondria. The EVOO diet resulted in less unsaturation of mitochondrial membranes, reduced oxidative stress, and less aging than the high PUFA diet.

A recent study examined the effects of different fatty acids on mitochondrial structure and function in calorie-restricted mice. One group was placed on a non-restricted control diet. The rest were given either fish oil (high omega-3), soybean oil (high omega-6), or lard-based (high in MUFA and SFA) diets. The clear winner was the lard diet, which reduced reactive oxygen species and “maximize[d] the effects” of calorie restriction.

Does that mean we should avoid all PUFAs for the sake of our mitochondria?

No. Other studies have found that feeding DHA, a long-chain omega-3, can restore the age-related decline in omega-3:omega-6 membrane ratio and mitochondrial energy production, protect against cell death, and even produce more cardiolipin. It has these beneficial effects despite being a highly unsaturated fat—more unsaturated than even linoleic acid. And it doesn’t take much to get the benefits of dietary DHA incorporation into mitochondrial membranes, just around 2% of calories in one animal study.

And we shouldn’t avoid omega-6s altogether. Many healthy, nutrient-dense foods contain omega-6 fatty acids. I’m thinking of nuts, seeds, eggs, avocados, olives.

You might have noticed that the majority of the studies discussed today used animals, often rodents. This is a necessary thing. Humans don’t really like being sacrificed or even having their internal organs plumbed for biopsy fodder. Still, take everything with a grain of salt.

Fat balance for mitochondrial health?

Since we don’t eat fats but foods, I’ll dispense with any pretense of knowing the “optimal” numbers and talk in terms of the latter:

Eat more avocados, avocado oil, olives, and olive oil, some seafood, some bacon and eggs, and don’t go wild with the nuts and seeds. Always eat fresh, unprocessed, ideally virgin fats that haven’t been damaged by heat, time, or light. Saturated fat is neutral, a staple component of mitochondrial membranes. If you don’t eat enough, your body will just make more.

This isn’t the final word on fat balance. It’s an important starting point. Everything flows from the mitochondria. You get those right and life gets a whole lot easier.

Thanks for reading, all. I’m curious to hear how your fat intakes measure up.

You May Also Like:

How Ancestry May Inform Your Fat Choices

Three Dishes With Three Animal Fats

How to Eat More Fat


Add fats to your diet with Primal Kitchen Avocado Oil Spray.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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45 thoughts on “How Should You Balance Your Fat Intake?”

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  1. Is there some unknown reason why the “Contact Us” option will not accept email sent to the administrator? You’ve got an upset user out there who has contacted me for advice, I can’t help him. And I can’t communicate with you guys either.

    1. Thank you! I’ve been trying for months to register for the forums and have tried numerous ways to contact anyone at MDA and no help so far.

      1. Hi, Jennifer,

        Sorry for the delay! I’ll have the Forum Administrator reach out.

    2. I don’t always get the “I’m not a robot” box, and you can’t post a comment without it. Does anyone else have this problem?

      1. Hi, Shary,

        What browser are you using? I’ll see if our team can have a look. Thanks!

        1. Thanks, Worker Bee. I am using Windows 10 Microsoft Edge. I get the “I’m not a robot” box when posting a reply to someone else’s message, but usually not when I try to post an original comment.

      2. I had this problem for the first few days that the new site was up, really wanted to post a comment but couldn’t so gave up eventually, but it’s been showing up each time since then for me.

    3. Hi, there!

      Sorry for any trouble (it’s been an adjustment getting the new forum up and running). Go ahead and submit your issue at the “Contact Me” section of the blog and putting “Forum Issue” in the subject line.

  2. Good read. I’ve been a long time believer (blindly I must admit) in eating as many different varieties of fat-rich foods. Good to know why now. Looking forward to more on fat balance.

  3. I’m glad to see this article. What type of fat, and how much, is something that’s widely debated even in the paleo/ancestral dieting communities. I mean conventional wisdom will clearly tell you to avoid butter like a plague and gulp down soybean oil. But even notable guys like Loren Cordain has said eat mostly monounsaturated fats and keep saturated and polyunsaturated to a minimum. Then you got the WAPF who says focus the majority of your fat consumption around saturated fat.

    1. That’s likely from the mistaken assumption that animal fat is mostly saturated, which not all the WAPF people will say if they’ve read Dr. Enig. (Problem is, they don’t read Dr. Enig. Most of them seem hyperfocused on keeping as much grain and legume food in the diet as possible, in direct contradiction to Dr. Price’s findings.) But the type of land-animal fat we most often eat generally runs about 45% MUFA, 45% SFA, and 10% PUFA. (Bird fat has more PUFA, usually.) Really, if most of the critter you eat goes around on four legs and you’re careful about sourcing then you’re gonna get the fat intake you need, even omega-3s, especially if you supplement with the occasional cold-water fish dinner.

  4. I’m not sure what type of fat coconut oil is. Can you eat too much of it? And how much would be too much. I’ve been under the impression that it is good for you so I try to eat quite a bit of it.

    1. “About 58% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids—caprylic (7.4%), capric (5.9%) and lauric acid (44%). Because medium-chain fatty acids are saturated, 87% of the total fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated”

      Anna, one tablespoon of coconut oil has 14 grams of fat. So something to keep in mind depending on how many grams of fat a day you are shooting for. I guess that depends on your weight and health goals, I don’t know, might be 40 – 90 grams of fat a day or more if you’re on a ketosis diet.

  5. Hmmm … I eat quite a few nuts each day, walnuts, almonds and cashews. Guess I better cut back some. I just added a new supplement to my daily regimen, PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone) in hopes it will induce mitochondrial biogenesis. We can always hope LOL. 🙂

  6. Excellent research in this article. I love to geek out on the research reports backing up your claims.

    It’s amazing that naturally saturated fats are so good for us but the minute we turn unsaturated fat into saturated fat via hydrogenation, we make the worst kind of fat there is – trans fat.

    1. Just goes to show you God knew what he was doing when he created our food items…and man is just a stumbling buffoon when he tries to get in the business of making food…

  7. Thinking out loud, I eat about a tbs. of grass fed butter with my eggs, a whole bunch of olive oil or avocado oil on my Big Ass Salad with some kind of fish on top, 6-7 days a week, a spoonful of coconut oil or coconut butter when I’m skipping a meal or as a snack, a couple little handfuls of nuts a few days a week, some kind of red meat 4-5 times a week cooked with tallow or butter…I love fat and it loves me.

    1. Forgot to add 1tbs. of heavy whipping cream to my cup of Joe in the morning along with a couple pieces of dark chocolate on weekends.

  8. Absolutely fascinating!!!

    I am however confused by the following statement “Since we don’t eat fats but foods…”.

    If someone keeps his protein levels around 80 grams and his net carbs (less fiber) around 70 grams, the rest has to come from fats (nuts, butter/ghee, coconut butter, almond butter etc)….

    1. I think he means that nobody eats pure fat exclusively. The food items you mention mostly contain some carbohydrates as well as fat.

    2. Regarding the statement, “Since we don’t eat fats but foods…” its just a bit of an awkward phrasing.
      Try, Since we don’t eat fats, in isolation, we eat foods that contain fats…

  9. Though I must admit, I’m having a little trouble “digesting” this newer format, this was a 5 star topic. Excelsior. Absalom. Really though, the new look is simply a matter of taste for most I suppose. Obviously, it’s about form and function. It’s all good.

  10. Great post! Adding more healthy fats to my life has definitely improved things. I have more steady energy throughout the day, and my mood is more stable. I have no idea how much fat I consume in a day. Today I had two tablespoons of coconut oil blended into my coffee, some macadamia nuts and Primal Kitchen mayo on my tuna. And tonight I’ll have some chicken with the skin, and definitely some butter or ghee on my veggies. I definitely try to a variety, but my faves as far as flavor are definitely avocado oil and olive oil. It kills me when I see people eating egg white omelets and putting skim milk in their coffee.

  11. Where do coconut and mct oil fall in this category? Especially for someone without a gallbladder and NAFLD? Thanks!

    1. Very good question.

      I had my gallbladder removed before I knew about the paleo diet; not say that I could have avoided it… something I would never know. Anyway, around 65% to 70% of my daily calories are from fat and it’s rare for me to experience discomfort. I used to take one bovine bile capsule when I first started out but hardly anymore. And just to clarify an earlier post, I consume coconut oil, mct oil, ghee and foods with many fats including roasted bone marrow and grilled ilia from lamb which is pure fat. But then again we are all different and what works for me might not work for you.

    2. The bile produced by the gallbladder breaks down long-chain fatty acids. Medium-chain are not as big of a deal. My daughter’s dad can eat coconut oil without mishap, though animal fats to excess can still mess with him. And that’s one thing about gallbladder removal–eventually the bile duct enlarges somewhat and you can handle fats better, but it’ll take a while.

      NAFLD happens in humans as a result of fructose overconsumption in the presence of choline deficiency, assuming you don’t have some other kind of underlying health condition that could be causing it. Eat more choline. Beef liver is THE best source of it. Egg yolks are good too. Some sources aren’t so awesome, like wheat germ. If you ever make protein shakes, you could buy some sunflower lecithin and add that to them, especially if you’re sensitive to eggs, or just throw in an egg yolk if you’re not. Cut back on sugary fruit. Berries and low-sugar melon (i.e., canteloupe), that’s it, and not in huge amounts.

      A couple low-carb doctors wrote a book about how to clear visceral fat from your midsection, and the program they came up with calls for shakes twice a day (homemade, with certain ingredient parameters). They called for adding an egg yolk to at least one shake and said they thought cholesterol facilitated fat-clearing in the liver. Maybe, but I suspect the choline in that egg yolk plays a huge role too.

      There are choline supplements but they’re a mixed bag. I’m hearing good things about Alpha-GPC (choline alfoscerate) but I haven’t tried it yet. Worth an extensive google and some reading up.

  12. I think with all the discussion of Ketogentic and High Fat it would be responsible to talk about the 13% of the Population that has the APOA2 Obesity Gene and how saturated fat effects them.

    Thank you.

  13. Hey Mark, thanks as always. I love talking about fat and it’s importance, one of my favorite topics. I think it would be interesting – maybe I only speak for myself here – to hear about dietary fat intake’s role on cellular communication and transport. How the fats from our diet play direct roles in being messengers in the body, and how those messengers (if, say high omega-6) can become lethal in terms of inflammation or beneficial (HDL).

    Love the blog, Mark. Thanks a million.

  14. So monounsaturated fat/oleic acid keeps the mitochondria saturated, but saturated fats have a neutral effect on the mitochondria? Just want to be sure I interpreted this correctly.

  15. Another thing: 2% of calories from omega 3 doesn’t sound hard, but I’m pregnant and my recommended calories is around or over 2,200 calories, 2% of calories from that is 44 calories, which would mean I need 4.88g omega 3 every day. I eat canned pink salmon every day, but I don’t eat a whole 14.75oz can. According to this website – – I would need to eat about 9.76oz of canned salmon every day to get that much omega 3… That’s a little too much fish for me in a day… I eat about half that amount every day, and that’s because it’s cheap. ($3.69 for a 14.75oz can Whole Foods brand wild Alaskan pink salmon)

  16. This is interesting. There has been a lot of chatter slating the Paleo diet recently as it is now being claimed it can lead to a far from perfect Omega 3 : Omega 6 ratio. What are your thoughts on this?

  17. I did the genetic testing at 23andMe. They reach out with new info/reports based on research using their data. About a week ago they had something about sat. fat. Evidently I’m one of the lucky ones that can eat sat. fat without it causing me to be overweight.

    “Juli, your weight is likely to be similar on diets high or low in saturated fat with the same number of total calories.

    People with your genetic result tend to have a similar BMI on diets with greater or less than 22 grams of saturated fat per day, as long as they consume the same number of total calories.

    However, diets high in saturated fat have been associated with increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.”

    1. This is the old paradigm – eating fat = getting fat. New paradigm – eating sugar (carbs) = getting fat. I would take any health reports from 23andMe with a grain of salt. Do your own research. Listen to the voices within the Paleo community, not those of the medical establishment (who are a generation or two behind current research).

  18. I found a huge hole in your analysis; namely: R2 is knocked out of commission and Luke still destroys the Death Star. I guess mitochondria aren’t all that necessary if one has the Force, eh? That raises the question: what should we use as a proxy for the Force in this galaxy? I’m going to assume that Omega-3 fats are the closest we’ve got.

  19. “Eat more avocados, avocado oil, olives, and olive oil, some seafood, some bacon and eggs, and don’t go wild with the nuts and seeds.”

    Eat more of this, less of that. That advice is only helpful if my diet is average, but even then would that be average for the readers of this blog or the population in general? Honestly, I leave this read with no more useful knowledge than when I arrived. If there is no way for an individual to answer the question of fat balance for herself then why talk about it at all?

  20. So if I understand this right, lean more toward MUFAs, away from omega 6s but not avoiding them, and saturated fat is kind of neutral fill in? ….. So coconut oil is kind of a neutral fill in?

  21. So when you reach into your cupboard to grab some fat, do you first reach for olive oil, or coconut oil, other oil, or try to get it all whole food?

  22. Hi! I am new to this! I am wondering how on earth i can get 937 calories of fat into my daily diet…? Without it contributing to eating more carbs and protein…Thanks!