Fatty acids are awesome.
Muscle heads love protein and amino acids because they're the bricks that build their biceps. Fatty acids function in your body in so many more ways, activating nuclear receptors, modifying the fat cell maturation process, increasing the pliability of your heart's electrochemical system...you get the point – they literally rule your body.
Unfortunately, much of the information surrounding fats is either dumbed down, misleading, or just plain wrong. In this article, we're going to look at the different kinds of fats, what you need, and why every rep-chasing lifter should care.
Fats – Broad Strokes
Before we get into the details of the different types of fats, I want to first set a nutritional framework for fats in your diet.
How much fat should you eat?
I've found that dietary advice is best kept as simple as possible while still having the biggest impact on your goals. For example, if you get the same results eating 2.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight versus following my advice to just eat a bunch of protein every time you eat something – the better advice is to eat a bunch of protein because it's simpler, and people will consistently do simple stuff.
This approach also translates to your fat intake. There are two levels of fat intake that you should focus on.
- If you're dieting and using a ketogenic diet, then you should shoot for 60% of your calories coming from fat.
- If you aren't using a ketogenic diet (whether your goal is muscle building, performance, or fat loss), then you should shoot for 30% of calories from fat.
The reason you want 60% of your calories from fat if you're dieting ketogenic style is because fat is going to be your body's primary fuel source. Many times I see people overdo protein on ketogenic diets. Big mistake. You want fat to be your primary fuel source, not protein.
30% of total calories from fat is the sweet spot for all other times because it allows you to get in enough of the fats you need, while at the same time getting the protein and carbs you need as well.
Nutrition is a zero sum game. When you talk percentage of calories, it all needs to add up to 100%. By consuming lots of one type of food you're preventing yourself from consuming a different type of food. (See John Berardi's Testosterone classic Dietary Displacement for more on this.)
I'll get into more specifics on the different types of fats later on, but from a total diet perspective you want to get a variety: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Getting 10% of your calories from each will provide you with the best results. Testosterone is about extreme muscle growth and fat loss, but to get the extreme results you need a balance of fats.
Next, a little T-controversy...
Saturated Fats – Are They Really That Special?
I've written about saturated fat previously here on Biotest. The cliff notes version of the article is as follows:
Severely restricting saturated fat too much may not be as beneficial from a health perspective (especially if you are cutting carbs) as we once thought and that saturated fat intake and Testosterone levels have been correlated.
Most of you know that, and while it's obvious I'm not in the saturated-fat hater camp, lately there's been a trend towards overemphasizing saturated fats in spite of recent food intakes data showing that we eat plenty of it.
Pro-saturated fat or not, you won't see me recommending that you go hog-wild with bacon because it isn't going to help your health or performance and, as stated, I'm about simplicity first. The truth is, too much emphasis on saturated fat only encourages you to eat less polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, which research shows unequivocally to be really good for you.
Instead of continuing to rehash the tired old saturated fat/debate, I wanted to look at an interesting saturated fat story that's often overhyped – coconuts, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), and weight loss.
The Great Coconut Shell Game
MCTs are saturated fats that, as the name says, are medium in length. Coconut is the most common food source of MCTs and is where coconut derives its weight loss fame. Yet the interesting thing about coconuts is that I've yet to see a study where people are actually given coconut oil to eat and it results in weight loss!
One study from Italy looked at the metabolic effects of replacing corn oil in a meal with MCTs. The researchers found that by switching to MCTs, the total energy expenditure of the subjects increased by ~50%. While this might sound amazing, the actual increase in calories burned was a paltry 25 calories; hardly significant if you consider that to get as many MCTs as was used in this study you'd need to ingest 3 tablespoons of coconut oil.
Looking at this data from a best case scenario implies that when you eat pure MCT oil, you burn an extra 3 grams of fat per tablespoon, compared to if you ate another kind of oil (olive, corn, canola, etc.).
But here's the rub: If you're trying to get your MCTs from coconut oil exclusively, you wouldn't get these 'free' 3 grams of fat because coconut oil is not 100% MCTs. In reality, you'd need to eat 21 grams of fat from coconut oil – instead of 14 grams of fat from MCTs.
I love coconut flakes with cottage cheese and chocolate Metabolic Drive, but if you're eating coconut for the calorie burning effects of their MCTs, the math just doesn't add up.
But before we dismiss MCTs, we should note that MCTs, in animal studies, have been shown to increase adiponectin levels. Adiponectin is a little-talked about hormone released from your fat cells that's also known as an adipokine (the most popular adipokine is leptin).
Adiponectin levels are low in overweight and obese people; adiponectin is also negatively correlated with abdominal fat (less adiponectin floating around in your blood means you most likely have more abdominal fat). More importantly, increases in adiponectin are related to improvements in insulin sensitivity in muscle. So finding ways to increase adiponectin secretions from your fat cells is always good.
Could this be an undiscovered benefit to MCTs?
Polyunsaturated fats can be confusing because they can be further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which can act completely different in your body. I've written before about the role of omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA (the two omega-3 fats found in fish oil) in health and fat loss here. More recently, I also looked at the omega-6 fat – inflammation connection and how it sounds like a better story than it really is. Check the articles for more information regarding these specific topics.
Polyunsaturated fats are often unfairly accused of being easily oxidized and thus likely to wreak havoc on your system. While this makes sense to a biochemist (more on that in a minute), it doesn't seem to hold true in the real world. I've yet to see any real evidence to show that people who eat more polyunsaturated fats have higher levels of oxidative stress. Fact is, the opposite is true; most research shows that the people who eat more polyunsaturated fats have better health.
Why More Oxidation?
Polyunsaturated fats are said to be more prone to oxidation because of their chemical structure. They have more double bonds than monounsaturated (which have one) or saturated fats (which have none). Double bonds in fats are like weak links in a chain; they're easily broken and when they do break, oxidation occurs. The more double bonds a fat molecule has, the more weak links, and thus the greater likelihood of oxidation.
Oxidizing fats are like a chain of fireworks strung together, once one goes off, the rest go offer soon afterwards.
What Causes Oxidation in Your Food?
The two major things causing the fats in your diet to be oxidized are time and heat.
- Time The longer food sits around, the greater likelihood of oxidation. This is why fish oil capsules and other unsaturated oils have vitamin E added to them. Companies add vitamin E, an antioxidant, to keep oxidation at bay. Most foods that naturally contain polyunsaturated fats also contain antioxidants as a built-in protection mechanism.
- Heat Increased heat can also increase the likelihood of oxidation. You may be wondering if this means that you should eat more of your food uncooked and cold. While the raw food movement is interesting, participation is not mandatory for two reasons.
The first is that when we eat foods, the structure and makeup of the foods helps protect polyunsaturated fats from oxidizing. Salmon is a great example of this. Salmon is loaded with the omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA – which means lots of susceptibility to oxidation. However, a 2001 study in Austria showed that steaming or pan frying salmon didn't accelerate fat oxidation in the salmon.
Another good example of this is seen with canola oil. Canola oil is often demonized as being high in omega-6 fats that can cause increases in inflammation and is oxidized while cooking, which in turn can cause you more health problems.
Ironically, apart from flaxseed oil, canola oil has the second highest alpha linolenic acid (another omega-3 fat) content than any other oil in our diet. So while it may contain a lot of the omega-6 fat linoleic acid (see this for why omega-6 fats are good for you), it's also a great source of omega-3 fats.
So is canola oil a bad oil to cook with due to oxidation? Nope. When heated to its smoke point (250 degrees Celsius) – a temperature at which you shouldn't cook with any oil – and held for 5 minutes, only a small amount of oxidation occurred. When canola oil is heated to 195 degrees Celsius, which is most likely the temperature you stir-fry foods at, there's no evidence of oxidation. In short, since you're not smoking your oils, you have nothing to worry about in regard to oxidation.
Let's move away from oxidation and polyunsaturated fats and move specifically to some new research on the two darlings of the fatty acid community, EPA and DHA.
EPA, DHA, and Anti-Aging
A hot topic in the science world is aging. Lately, scientists have begun measuring the rate at which people age biologically. They do this through measuring telomere length.
The telomere is a clump of DNA that sits at the end of your chromosome. It serves as the 'cap' to your chromosomes, preventing valuable parts of the chromosome from being degraded.
Due to the mechanics of chromosomal replication, each replication causes your telomeres to get smaller and smaller. When the telomeres eventually disappear, the actual chromosomes start to degrade and your cell dies. Other factors such as oxidative stress and inflammation can also accelerate telomere shortening and thus, aging.
A study published in January of this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that over a five-year period, people with the lowest levels of EPA and DHA in their blood had the fastest rate of telomere shortening. So add 'anti-aging' to the list of amazing things these fatty acids do.
Monounsaturated fats are commonly seen as the epitome of heart-healthy fats and the key to the uber healthy Mediterranean diet. Popular food sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, red meat (which is about half monounsaturated fat), avocados, and macadamia nuts (which have more monounsaturated fat than any other nut).
For the longest time people were advised to replace fats in their diets with carbohydrates; yielding that awful low fat/high carbohydrate diet. The tide has finally turned (i.e. regular people are now doing what we lifters have been doing for a while) and recommendations are now being made not to replace fats with carbohydrates, but to eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Ironically, high monounsaturated fat diets had been used in the 1980's for the treatment of diabetes (where glucose control is imperative). Too bad they didn't keep it up. Eating more monounsaturated fats have also been show to be associated with a slowing of age related cognitive decline.
Big Fat Conclusions
The world of dietary fats is complex. Your best bet is to take in a lot of fish oil and get a variety of fats from as many different sources as possible. Here's a list to get you started:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Flaxseed oil / Flaxseeds
- Coconut oil
- Dairy Products (Cheese, Cottage Cheese, Milk, Yogurt)
- Meats (Chicken, Beef, Pork, Fish)
- Nuts (Walnuts, Almonds, Macadamia, Pistachios)
- Cacao (nibs are my favorite)
Have all these on hand to make things easy, and remember, to get the extreme results you want, you need a balance of fats.