The global prevalence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) has dramatically increased in parallel with the epidemic of obesity. Controversy has emerged around dietary guidelines recommending low-fat–high-carbohydrate diets and the roles of dietary macronutrients in the pathogenesis of metabolic disease. In this Review, the topical questions of whether and how dietary fats and carbohydrates, including free sugars, differentially influence the accumulation of liver fat (specifically, intrahepatic triglyceride (IHTG) content) are addressed. Focusing on evidence from humans, we examine data from stable isotope studies elucidating how macronutrients regulate IHTG synthesis and disposal, alter pools of bioactive lipids and influence insulin sensitivity. In addition, we review cross-sectional studies on dietary habits of patients with NAFLD and randomized controlled trials on the effects of altering dietary macronutrients on IHTG. Perhaps surprisingly, evidence to date shows no differential effects between free sugars, with both glucose and fructose increasing IHTG in the context of excess energy. Moreover, saturated fat raises IHTG more than polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, with adverse effects on insulin sensitivity, which are probably mediated in part by increased ceramide synthesis. Taken together, the data support the use of diets that have a reduced content of free sugars, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat in the treatment of NAFLD.