While many people will hear “butter and beef” and immediately think about heart attacks and weight gain, but the truth is that all types of natural fats are healthy and even beneficial when you eat high-quality versions of them and have them in moderation.

Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is the name given to a group of chemicals found in the fatty acid called linoleic acid. A few of the primary sources of CLA in the diet include full-fat dairy products, beef, and butter. But many people think of these foods as being “unhealthy” sources of saturated fat, but they also provide essential CLA, which is a type of polyunsaturated fat that we must obtain from our diets.

The human body needs all three types of fats, even saturated fats, for optimum health, they all have various functions, from pregnancy to digestion to brain function. Not only is it true that eating fat doesn’t make you fat, but the certain types of healthy fats are some of the best fat-burning foods available.

Quality is very crucial to fats, especially the kinds that come from animal products. CLA is known to fight cancer, block weight gain and help build muscle, and it’s almost exclusively found in high-quality beef and butter from healthy, grass-fed cows or other animals.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid or CLA Benefits Include:

  • Helping with weight loss
  • Muscle-building and strength improvements
  • Anticancer effects
  • Bone-building benefits
  • Growth and developmental support
  • Reversing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Improving digestion
  • Reducing food allergies and sensitivities

There isn’t a stable daily recommended dose of CLA, but studies show that the average daily intake is approximately 152–212 milligrams for non-vegetarian women and men. Because CLA is found in animal products, vegans and vegetarians usually have lower levels.

For certain benefits like reducing body fat in obese patients, a dose of 1.8 to 7 grams per day has been used successfully. But amounts on the smaller side of that range might be plenty since some research shows that greater than 3.4 grams per day don’t seem to offer any additional benefits.

How Does Conjugated Linoleic Acid Work?

All types of fats (lipids) — whether from animal products, eggs, dairy, oils, nuts, seeds or coconuts — are made up of fatty acids. Some fats are considered essential because the body cannot produce them on its own, while others are non-essential because the body can synthesize them from other nutrients. The essential fats we need to obtain from our diet include polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, seafood, eggs and some nuts or seeds) and polyunsaturated omega-6 fats (mostly found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds).

These two types both have significant but somewhat opposite, effects in the body; omega-3s are known as being anti-inflammatory while omega-6s are inflammatory. We need both kinds of essential fats to balance our immune, hormone, digestive and nervous system functions, which is why so many low-fat diet risks exist when someone skips out on eating enough healthy fats.

Ideally, the food would be equal regarding omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid intakes, but the standard American diet is much higher in omega-6s, which is why it’s known for being so “inflammatory.” Unfortunately, inflammation is at the root of most chronic diseases — including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, autoimmune disorders, and dementia.

Among different types of fatty acids, there are saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are three names used to describe fats chemical structures. Each type provides different benefits and functions thanks to its particular effects on our bodies’ various systems. All fatty acids are strings of carbon atoms bonded to a hydrogen bond. When every carbon acid is bonded to hydrogen, saturated fat is formed; if one pair of carbon atoms form a bond a monounsaturated fat is formed; and when there are more than two unsaturated bonds a polyunsaturated fat is formed.

CLA is a type of polyunsaturated fat, specifically an omega-6 fatty acid. It’s believed that certain microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract of ruminant animals convert linoleic acid into different forms of CLA through a biohydrogenation process. This process changes the position and configuration of the fat’s double bonds, resulting in a single bond between one or both of the two double bonds.

Usually, we describe a food source as being one type of fat (such as olive oil is monounsaturated or beef being saturated), but the truth is that nearly every food is made up of different kinds of fats. The primary omega-6 fat is called linoleic acid, and it’s found in foods including grains and vegetable oils (like corn, safflower, sunflower or canola oil). Omega-6 oils are now known to be overly consumed and therefore dangerous, mostly from people consuming lots of processed junk foods made with low-quality oils.

As you can see, both types of essential fats not only need to be obtained from the foods we eat, but it’s also very vital that we eat them in the right amounts. Conjugated linoleic acid is one type of omega-6 fat we can afford to eat more of because it tends to act like an omega-3 food in the body, helping lower inflammation and promote other aspects of health. It also helps turn off hunger (by controlling our hunger hormone called ghrelin) and can improve your ability to absorb nutrients. There are 28 different forms of CLA, but two seem to be the most important. These are called “c9, t11” and “t10, c12.”