How can herbivorous cattle get fat? These animals eat only grassy substances, think of cattle, buffalo, goats etc. For example, wheat grass contains 0% fat, and its nutritional value is limited to carbohydrates and fibers. Still, livestock can have substantial (10%) fat content and give milk with lots of fat on top of it.

Where does that fat come from?

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    $\begingroup$ Apologies for re-editing this question, but just to illustrate that grass basically contains no fat at all and to prevent discussions on nuts, seeds etc. $\endgroup$ – AliceD Apr 5 '17 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps I'm unduly picking nits, and I'm certainly not disagreeing with @AliceD's nice answer, but most grass does have some fat. Here for instance are numbers for various types of hay: atascaderohayandfeed.com/hay.html (The first hit Google returned - so I'm lazy :-)) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 6 '17 at 5:25

Short answer
Plants typically store energy in the form of starch. Animals, including livestock and humans for that matter, can digest starch, metabolize it into acetyl-CoA and turn it into fat.

Plants contain sugars, formed by photosynthesis. Plants generally do not store energy in the form of fats, but in the form of starch, a glucose polysaccharide*. Animals digest this starch through hydrolysis catalyzed by the enzyme amylase back into glucose (Fig. 1). Cellulose is another polysaccharide. In grass-fed cattle, it is mainly cellulose that forms their source of energy. Cellulose cannot be digested by ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep) as they are unable to synthesise the enzymes needed to digest cellulose and other plant compounds. Cellulose can be hydrolyzed by cellulase enzymes in e.g. Ruminococcus species present in the ruminant tract in the guts of these animals. The cellulase enzyme endoglycosidase cleaves the disaccharide cellobiose from cellulose, and another type of enzyme, β-glucosidase hydrolyzes cellobiose into glucose monomers (sources: Microbe Wiki, University of Waikato).

Glucose is then degraded to pyruvate by aerobic glycolysis in the cytoplasm of the cell. Pyruvate is then transported into the mitochondria, where pyruvate dehydrogenase oxidatively decarboxylates pyruvate, forming acetyl-CoA and other products (Fig. 2).

Acetyl CoA can then serve as a substrate for citrate synthesis. Citrate, in turn, can be transported out of the mitochondria to the cytoplasm. There it can be split to generate cytoplasmic acetyl-CoA for fatty acid synthesis under the influence of anabolic factors like insulin in times of plenty (Fig. 3), referred to as lipogenesis.

Fig. 1. Starch is hydrolyzed by amylase. source: Biotek

Fig. 2. Acetyl-CoA formation. source: University of Utah

Fig. 3. Lipogenesis. source: Sharing in Health

*: Although plants usually store their energy reserves in the form of starch, there are important exceptions to this. Most notably certain seed pods, like peanuts and walnuts, contain substantial amounts of fat. Further, cell membranes and other components will add traces of fatty substances even in grassy plants. With credits to Marzipanherz.

  • $\begingroup$ Does this mean I can get fat even if i do not eat any fat? $\endgroup$ – murmansk Apr 4 '17 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @murmansk Getting overweight is not a problem of eating to much fat per se, but of taking up too much nutrients. Fats are more "dangerous" here, since they harbour more energy (calories) per gram than carbohydrates. But still, if you eat too much sugar and avoid fat completely, you can get overweight. $\endgroup$ – Chris Apr 4 '17 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ @murmansk The "Atkins diet" was a fad a few years ago based precisely on this concept: weight gain is a function of a disparity in calories in versus calories out. The source of calories is less important. More recent fad diets that take a similar approach are the "ketogenic diet" and "paleo" movement. All of them emphasize a reduction in sugars, rather than fats, for health and weight loss. (note: I'm not necessarily supporting any of these diets, just pointing out that they are somewhat popular and are based on exactly the science we are discussing here) $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 5 '17 at 15:37

Same way animals can turn sugars to fats, chain reactions involving multiple enzymes. Some plants, e.g. potatoes, rice etc. will store very little fat. Most plants will only store a bit of fat in the seeds, but some - I guess nuts and olives are the main ones - will convert significant amounts of glucose (produced by photosynthesis) to fats, which we can eat, or extract oil from. Edit: Looks like there's some good info here, but a bit dense :lipid biosynthesis

  • $\begingroup$ Nice ref (and +1). And, of course, plants (unlike us) can convert fat to glucose $\endgroup$ – user1136 Apr 7 '17 at 10:00

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