The clear facts on fats
Ten years ago, nobody wanted to know anything about them. Health-conscious people avoided them like the plague. Now, they’ve become the latest fad. Not a week goes by without at least one or two reports in the media describing yet another health benefit from their inclusion in the diet.
I’m talking about fat. In particular, the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). They’ve been getting a lot of positive press lately and for good reason. The research-based benefits of some PUFAs have been rolling out at an extraordinary rate in recent years. However, with all the health benefits reported from the different types of PUFAs, it can get pretty confusing when deciding what kind is best to add to your diet.
The recent avalanche of new information can also make it seem impossible to determine whether or not you’ve got all of your “essential fat” requirements covered.
Fear not. Once you read this, not only will you have all your facts straight, you’ll be a wealth of knowledge on the subject. You can amaze your friends, be the life at parties, solve world problems, etc, etc. Just be sure to use your powers for good and not evil, okay?
The chemistry (and other stuff that’s good to know)
A PUFA molecule is shaped like a caterpillar. They are so tiny that a 100 quintillion (that’s 100 followed by 18 zeroes) are present in a single drop of oil. Each “caterpillar” is composed of two parts; a carbon chain with an acid group attached at the front.
Chemically, these long chains of carbon atoms are linked together with single and double bonds. The location and number of these double bonds is the key to a fatty acid’s bioactivity; it determines the shape of the molecule and how the body uses it.1
The term “poly” indicates that there are at least two double bonds located along the fatty acid chain. The term “polyunsaturated” refers to the fact that due to these double bonds, the carbon chain is not completely “saturated” with hydrogen.2
Saturated fats are so bad for our health because the chain has no double bonds and therefore, no functionality. These fats have no biological purpose other than to be utilized as a fuel source so they are stored in tissues until required.
There are two main families of PUFA: n-3 and n-6. These fatty acids are not interchangeable and have very different biochemical roles.2
The “n” designates where the final double bond is located on the chain; this is a critical aspect of its functionality. The term “omega” is often used to describe these fats as it means “last” or “final”. Hence the name omega-3 and omega-6 fats.3
There are two 18 carbon chain PUFAs your body can not manufacture. They need to be present in the diet. They are the “essential fats” linoleic acid (LA) (an omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) (an omega-3).4
Technically, from these two, your body has the ability to manufacture the myriad of different fatty acid chains it needs. However, as you’ll discover, this process is by no means adequate.1-4
In the typical (unhealthy) Western diet, 20–25-fold more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats are consumed.5 This predominance of n-6 fat is due to the abundance of LA in the foods people like to eat. LA is present in high concentrations in soy, corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. All processed foods contain these oils as do most meals that are cooked in restaurants.6,7
In contrast, there is a low intake of LNA (omega-3 fats) by the general population. Why? Because the best sources are leafy green vegetables, flaxseeds and walnuts – most people don’t eat a lot of these foods!4 Once ingested, LNA and LA are converted into their respective biologically active 20-carbon omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.1
LA is converted to arachidonic acid (AA) where as LNA is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA).3 In turn, AA, EPA and DHA are incorporated into the membranes (outer layer) of cells. Here, they produce prostaglandins which are families of short-lived, hormone-like substances that regulate an array of important functions within cells in tissues on a moment-to-moment basis.2
From the research, it has become clear that the large imbalance between the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in our diet is the cause of so many unrelated conditions of ill health.
Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancers are termed “inflammatory diseases” as they manifest from a chronic inflammatory response produced within the body. 8 From the research it is clear that the large imbalance between the omega-6 to omega-3 fats in our diet creates this chronic inflammation that underlines so many unrelated conditions of ill health.8,9
This imbalance between the omega-6 to omega-3 PUFA in the modern diet has also been linked to the ever-increasing incidence of depression among adults10 as well as the sharp decline in mental capacity of our older population.11 The brain requires an extraordinarily high amount of omega-3; an equal ratio (1:1) of omega-6 to omega-3. For other tissues it’s only 4:1. It’s also interesting to note that patients with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma all show alleviated symptoms when more EPA and DHA are included in the diet.9
The mechanism of this chronic inflammation resides in the dominance of omega-6 PUFAs in the diet. Remember that the omega-6’s are converted to AA. This is used in the body to produce most of the potent pro-inflammatory mediators or ecosaniods (such as PGE2, LTB4 and possibly the cytokines IL-1? and TNF-?).8 However, the omega-3 fats, EPA in particular, can inhibit the metabolism of AA into these inflammatory mediators. EPA competes via the same enzymatic pathways (the cyclooxygenase and 5-lipoxygenase), thereby suppressing the production of the destructive omega-6 inflammatory mediators and replacing them with the more moderate omega-3-based compounds.12
Increasing the ratio of the omega-3 fats in the diet (with particular emphasis on EPA) is consistently shown in research to reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids. Increasing the ratio of the omega-3 fats in the diet shifts the body’s balance of inflammatory mediators to a much less potent mixture that are far more conducive to good health.8,9
Researchers believe that increasing the ratio of omega-3 fats in the diet, particularly EPA will reduce the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids that cause illness.
If you’re interested in building a lean physique, this next finding will really grab you. Chronic inflammation (which is simply the excessive production of the omega-6 pro-inflammatory mediators) has a profound impact on body composition. Over time, it creates an environment within the body that promotes the loss of strength and muscle mass as well as fat accumulation.13,14 Chronic inflammation creates an environment within the body that makes it virtually impossible to build strength and gain muscle mass during weight training; it retards protein synthesis and promotes the destruction of muscle tissue.15
Chronic inflammation is linked clearly with repetitive muscle damage that occurs during intense training programs.15 weight training damages muscle tissue. In turn, this evokes an acute immune response. If left unchecked, research shows that this can easily develop into chronic inflammation. Lack of motivation, poor performance or measly gains from consistent training have all been associated with chronic inflammation caused by intense training.15
As we age it becomes more and more difficult to build muscle and shed body fat. Once again, from the research we now know that chronic inflammation goes hand in hand with ageing. This contributes to an environment within the body that makes it extremely difficult for older adults to gain muscle mass and shed body fat.16,17
Just give me the flax
Increasing the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet appears to be an important part of creating optimum health that builds a premium physique. One simple and effective way to improve the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is to ensure that rich sources of omega-3s are a staple in your diet.
Flax seeds (or linseeds as they are also known) contain the highest known ratio of LNA to LA. One hundred grams of flax seeds will provide about 35-grams of oil (essential fats, lecithin and phytosterols), 26-grams of protein and 14-grams of fiber.18
Flax seeds are the richest known source of ligans, molecules with anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties. They are also a richest source of mucilage which is a special kind of fiber that acts as a natural laxative and protects against bowel cancer. Mucilage also helps stabilize blood glucose levels. Additionally, flax seeds contain a rich array of minerals, vitamins E and carotene and the energy-activating B-group vitamins.18 As you can see, flax seeds are a pretty useful food for bodybuilders.
Notice that I said flax seeds and not oil. Most of the nutrition is contained within the seed and only a fraction is passed on to the oil. Eating crushed flax seeds is a much better choice than consuming the oil. Crushed flax seeds can be found in most supermarkets and health food stores.
Unfortunately, you cannot rely solely on flax seeds to meet your omega-3 requirements. As I mentioned previously, the essential fat LNA is required to synthesize the more bioactive omega-3’s EPA and DHA. However, this enzyme driven process declines with age.1,4 For optimum health, a quality source of EPA and DHA omega-3s is essential.
The best omega-3 for bodybuilders
You’ve probably heard a lot lately about the health benefits from consuming cold water fish and their oils. Salmon, tuna, sardines and other cold water varieties are the main food source of EPA and DHA. The fuss about these fish and their fish oil appears to be legit. An ever increasing amount of research shows that EPA and DHA are indispensable constituents for good health and a disease-free lifespan.
Our capacity to synthesize EPA/DHA from the essential fat LNA decreases with age! For optimum health, a quality source of the omega-3’s EPA and DHA is essential.
Firstly, these particular omega-3s are so important to our health because they form the all-important phospholipids structures within the membranes of cells that constitute our organs and tissues. These phospholipid structures ensure that the outer shell of every cell is fluid rather than solid. This enables a plentiful supply of oxygen and other nutrients get into cells while allowing efficient transportation of waste products out of cells.19 A deficiency in these fats means that every cell in your body are like little houses without windows. As you can imagine, with very little fresh air able to get in or out, it wouldn’t take long for things to get pretty funky in there. There is no way cells can function optimally. Therefore, peak performance becomes impossible.
Secondly, EPA and DHA are recognized as powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. They modulate the body’s production of inflammatory meditators to help protect against or reduce the risk of inflammation-related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancers.2,6,9 While both DHA and EPA omega-3 fats are an integral part of optimum nutrition, the benefits of EPA for bodybuilders really shines through.
Not only is EPA recognized in medical science as a potent anti-inflammatory that has no unwanted side-effects, EPA is also the only non-pharmaceutical compound shown in research to inhibit the major pathway of muscle breakdown.20, Bodybuilders follow calorie-restricted diets for prolonged amounts of time. Studies have shown that calorie-restriction also activates this pathway,21 and maybe one reason why so many bodybuilders lose so much strength and muscle mass when they diet. EPA appears to down regulate this pathway and reduce the destruction of muscle protein during periods of calorie-restriction.21 Increasing the ratio of EPA in the diet also appears to enhance fat utilization during exercise. In one study, regular use of an EPA-rich supplement resulted in significantly greater use of fat for fuel.22
As far as supplementation goes, it is important to remember that the amount of EPA incorporated into tissues is not only dose dependant but also ratio specific.8 EPA has to compete with other dietary fats to become built-in to cell structures. The higher the ratio of EPA to other fats in the diet means that more EPA is effectively incorporated into tissues.2,9 Taking fish oil capsules provide equivalent amounts of both omega-3 EPA and DHA. Therefore, regardless of how many capsules you take, fish oil will do nothing to increase the ratio of EPA in the diet. AST Sports Science identified this problem and developed Myo-D.
Myo-D contains a unique 5:1 ratio of EPA to DHA. This makes it the highest potency EPA supplement on the market. Without a doubt, supplementing with Myo-D is the most effective way to increase the ratio of EPA in your diet.
The amount of dietary EPA incorporated into tissues is ratio specific. The higher the ratio of EPA to other fats in the diet means that more EPA is effectively incorporated into tissues.
Fish oil capsules provide equivalent amounts of both omega-3 EPA and DHA. Regardless of how many capsules you take, fish oil will not increase the ratio of EPA in the diet!
What about other “good fats,” do we need them?
All of the information thus far has been on the essential fats and ways to ensure that your intake is optimum. However, there are other “good fats” that bodybuilders should include in their diet. One is extra virgin olive oil.
Although olive oil is a source of PUFAs, it predominantly contains monounsaturated fats. Olive oil appears to provide some unique health benefits that other fats do not. Olive oil stimulates uncoupling proteins within muscle cells.23 Uncoupling proteins accelerate fat metabolism by allowing the body to lose energy as heat rather than storing it as fat. Cross-sectional studies report that Mediterranean’s consume a rather high fat diet yet, they remain remarkably lean and free of heart disease. Most of their fat intake is pure olive oil.
Just over 100 compounds have been identified in olive oil but have not been studied. The health benefits of olive oil could reside in their unique combination of monounsaturated fats and phenolics; plant-based chemicals that provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects. These phenolics are well researched and have powerful bioactive properties that exert a number of beneficial effects on the metabolism.24 Extra virgin olive oil appears to be the best source.25 So be sure to include a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil in your daily diet.
CLA: the body-shaper
Conjugated linolenic acid (CLA) was discovered by accident in 1978 by Michael Pariza at the University of Wisconsin while looking for mutagen formations in meat during cooking. CLA, found naturally in many animal products, consists of positional and geometric isomers of the essential fat, LA.
As a supplement, CLA is well documented in research to improve fat loss and body composition.26, 27 However the results of a recently completed clinical trial suggest that CLA also has the ability to improve body shape. In this study, the fat loss appeared to be specific to the upper leg and abdomen areas, the “problem” areas for most people. CLA’s unique properties are based on the molecules’ conjugated double bonds at carbon atoms 10 and 12 or 9 and 11. Unlike other supplements purported to enhance fat loss, the mechanisms of action of CLA has been well studied.28
One proposed mechanism is that under normal circumstances, when dietary fat is not used for energy, it is taken up and stored in fat cells. The enzyme lipoprotein lipase is responsible. CLA has been shown to inhibit this enzyme. Instead of being stored, the triglycerides are diverted to the muscle cells and utilized for fuel. Within muscle, CLA promotes the activity of another enzyme, carnitine palmitoyl transferase, which is responsible for the metabolism of fat for fuel. CLA’s capacity to ensure more fat is utilized as a fuel source may provide greater endurance during exercise.29
In summary, the large imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the typical diet manifests chronic inflammation within tissues that not only promotes disease, but also poor results from exercise training. Increasing the ratio of omega-3 in the diet appears to counteract the mechanisms that underline these undesirable effects. However, some types of omega-3 provide the athlete with more benefits than others.
The research available suggests that increasing the ratio of the omega-3, EPA in the diet would promote less inflammation, reduce muscle breakdown, while promoting faster recovery and better results from training. For bodybuilders this has to mean less body fat and better gains in strength and muscle mass. Other dietary fats such as extra virgin olive oil and CLA 1000 provide unique health benefits and may enhance fat loss, particularly during a calorie-controlled diet. Alongside a high intake of the omega-3, EPA, it makes sense to incorporate these other fats in your diet to ensure optimum health and results from training.