Choose the best dietary fats and dial in your intake. Here's why.
As Dr. Lonnie Lowery said during our last chat, bodybuilders and physique-conscious gym monkeys are so far ahead of "normal people" when it comes to nutritional knowledge that it's not even funny.
I'll give you an example. Today I read an article advising overweight people to eat bread and chocolate during their diets so they'll be in a "better mood." A medical doctor was quoted, so this must be great advice, right?
Or maybe this is why something like 65% of the US population is overweight, obese, or clogging the aisles of my grocery store with their anti-mobility devices so I can't even reach the goddamned chicken breasts! But I digress...
Funny, but when I look around at my lean and muscular colleagues in the bodybuilding world, I don't see many of them scarfing down bread and chocolate. In fact, most of them are doing the opposite of what the so-called health and fitness media says to do. They're timing their carbs to surround the all-important peri-workout period and limiting them at other times. They disregard the "low-fat" advice too, eating whole eggs, red meat, and purposefully increasing their fat intake.
And guess what? They're getting even more ripped doing it.
I admit, I fell for the high-carb, low-fat hype back in the early 90's. I did everything the "experts" said to do, and (surprise, surprise) I stayed fat while eating a nearly fat-free diet.
These days I'm careful with the carbs, but I pack in the fats. In fact, just today I purposefully swallowed 6 capsules of fat (Flameout®, and then made an avocado cheesecake (yes, really) and ate the whole damn thing. By doing the opposite of what most mass-market weight loss experts say to do, I'm able to stay lean. Funny that.
One guy who really helped me get my head out of my ass was Dr. Lowery. Lonnie pretty much wrote the book on fats (or at least a chapter or two). He's helped design fatty acid supplements and has been involved in some of the studies that have reshaped what we know about the pharmaceutical powers of dietary fats.
While enjoying the second half of my avocado cheesecake, I decided to give Dr. Lowery a call to pick his hypertrophied brain about the latest fat research. Here's some cool tidbits from our conversation that caught my attention.
Good Fats, Bad Fats: More Complex Than You Think
Ah, it was all so simple at one time: saturated fats were bad; unsaturated fats were good. Eat egg whites; avoid red meat.
So simple. So ignorant!
"This distinction between saturated fat and unsaturated fat is archaic," says Dr. Lowery. "There are saturated fats that are good in some ways and bad in others. There are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are good in some ways and bad in others. We're breaking it down these days and looking at the individual fatty acids in each of these three categories."
Lowery reminds us that all fatty acids have pharmaceutical-like effects; some effects can be seen as pro and some can be seen as con. Choices can partly be guided by your goals, familial cholesterol concentrations, your body fat percentage, or your tendency to gain fat.
A quick example: Stearic acid, which is saturated, makes up about half of the fat in beef. So it's "bad," right? Not so fast. Stearic acid, unlike some saturated fats, doesn't raise LDL cholesterol, the bad one.
Awesome, you say, then bring on the New York strip! Well, that's not so simple either. Although we know now that red meat won't muck up your cholesterol levels, stearic acid is lipogenic or "fattening" relative to some other fatty acids. Researchers are even pinning down the exact cellular mechanism by which stearic acid is fattening.
Well shit. Maybe we can't just eat all the fatty beef we want.
Okay, what about "healthy" monounsaturated fats like oleic acid from olive oil? Well, yes, they're good for you when it comes to things like glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, etc. But they're not oxidized or burned very rapidly in comparison to some fatty acids. So, good for cardiovascular risks, but still sort of "fattening," so to speak.
Here's some pros and cons of other common dietary fats:
Table 1. Select effects of various saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids
|Lauric acid (C12, saturated fat)||Coconut oil||Rich in quickly-burned versus stored MCT; Raises HDL cholesterol||Raises LDL ("bad") cholesterol|
|Palmitic acid (C16, saturated fat)||Palm oil *||May not worsen blood "clottiness" like some sat fat; Raises HDL cholesterol||Raises LDL cholesterol; Worsens insulin sensitivity|
|Stearic acid (C18, saturated fat)||Beef||Doesn't raise LDL cholesterol like other saturated fat||Induces lipogenic (fat building) genes and storage; may not "satisfy" after a meal compared to monounsaturated oleic acid|
|Palmitoleic acid (C16, monounsaturated)||Palm oil *||–||Increases inflammation; Worsens insulin sensitivity|
|Oleic acid (C18, monounsaturated)||Olive oil, canola oil, peanuts||Reduces blood pressure; Improves glycemia||Poorly oxidized compared to some other fatty acids|
|Linoleic acid (C18, omega-6 polyunsaturated)||Corn, safflower, cottonseed oils||Reduces LDL cholesterol||Worsens inflammation compared to monounsaturates or other polyunsaturates|
|Conjugated linoleic acid (C18, unusual polyunsaturated, two main types)||Beef and dairy, supplements||May reduce lipogenesis (10,12 isomer); May increase lean tissue gain (9,11 isomer)||May worsen insulin resistance in overweight subjects|
|DHA and EPA (C20, C22, omega-3 polyunsaturated)||Fatty cold water fish, supplements||May assist in body fat loss; Reduces inflammation and serum triglyceride concentrations; Reduces cardiac arrhythmias; elevates mood; Less blood "clottiness"||Overly antithrombotic at very high doses?|
* Much maligned palm oil effects depend on fresh vs. oxidized (damaged or processed) form.
Now, here's something big to consider: Dr. Lowery notes that we (bodybuilders, gym freaks, athletes) are not "normal" people. In other words, the fact that we're kicking ass in the gym five or six days a week may obviate certain cons, like how palm oil can hurt insulin sensitivity. In other words, it just may not apply to our unique – and dead sexy – population. Different physical adaptations, different metabolisms.
"I wish I could say 'go eat this but not that,' but the take-home conclusions aren't that simple," notes Lowery. "What you need to do is select dietary fats according to their known effects on the body, not according to out-of-date distinctions like saturated and unsaturated. Instead look at the individual fatty acid content of foods. I know that's more complicated but, I'm sorry, biochemistry is complex!"
So for example, even though diet actually has a very minor impact on actual blood cholesterol (in most people), you may want to steer clear of most palm oil or coconut oil if you have a family history of high cholesterol. Beef fat may be a better choice.
If you have no family issues with cholesterol but are worried about your prostate health and need to lose some body fat to boot, then coconut oil with its high lauric acid (MCT) content may be a better dietary fat for you.
Each fatty acid has near-pharmaceutical properties, so pick and choose your fats wisely.
EVOO: Raw vs. Cooked
So I'm channel surfing the other day and I come across a Rachel Ray cooking show. I notice two things: 1) She'd be kinda hot if she lost 20 pounds and refrained from speaking, and 2) she talked about the health benefits of EVOO then proceeded to fry with it. But doesn't heat screw up the healthy benefits of extra virgin olive oil?
Now, the beneficial health effects of olive oil are due to both its high level of monounsaturated fatty acids and its high amount of antioxidative substances. Studies have shown that olive oil offers protection against heart disease by controlling LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels while raising HDL (the "good" cholesterol) levels, among other things.
But the more you cook with olive oil, the lower its antioxidant content gets, according to Lowery. Does it "destroy" or "ruin" the olive oil to cook with it? No, you can't turn it into trans-fat by simply heating it in your non-commercial kitchen or anything, but it does change its healthful properties a little with reuse.
Still, for max benefits, consume your EVOO raw, no matter what that almost-doable Rachel Ray says.
Cholesterol for Lean Mass?
Would you take a bodybuilding supplement that's had cholesterol purposefully added to it? What if it lead to you gaining more lean body mass?
Well, Dr. Lowery told me about a study done by Riechman and colleagues at Texas A&M. They fed older guys (in their 60's) extra cholesterol-rich foods and had them train with weights. Those who had higher cholesterol diets gained more lean mass than those who trained but didn't eat the cholesterol-rich foods.
This may not be big news for those in the strength-training world (remember Louie Simmons proclaiming years ago that cholesterol "turns into Testosterone!"), but this is groundbreaking, outside-the-box thinking in the clinical nutrition community. Cholesterol is usually considered the enemy in these settings – settings focused on the average Joe as opposed to hard-training lifters.
So would taking a designer fat supplement made of cholesterol mixed with purposely "structured triglycerides" help you to gain muscle mass over the next 12 weeks? Dr. Lowery says that it may indeed, based on this and other research.
"Finally! Cholesterol is starting to be looked at as something other than a bad guy!" says Lowery. This is just as exciting from a fresh, purely scientific standpoint as it is from the standpoint of potentially increased muscle gains. He adds that he and his graduate students are about to begin teasing apart this new data and perhaps seeing if it applies to younger guys as well as old farts.
One of the things researchers would like to figure out is this: If dietary cholesterol actually doesn't influence serum cholesterol levels much, then what is it about cholesterol that does seem to influence muscle mass gains? A number of cellular mechanisms have been suggested. Still, they just don't know yet.
Dosing cholesterol as a refined sports/bodybuilding lipid supplement in the hopes that it drives muscle mass formation? It could happen one day, folks! Until then, lift heavy and eat some whole eggs.
The Latest on CLA
Quick refresher course: Everyone got really excited about Conjugated Linoleic Acid a few years back because this stuff seems to just peel the body fat off of lab rats. Seriously, these rats had the "hawtest abz" in the rat world and got more celebrity rat-ass than John Mayer.
Other studies showed that the t10,c12 isomer of CLA may prevent body fat accumulation – it's "anti-lipogenic" in Lowery-speak. This lead to a nutrient partitioning effect if you used a mix of enough of the correct isomers. Unfortunately, many early CLA supplements were sold at a time before individual isomers were characterized.
Since the early days there's finally been two meta-analyses – studies that look at a lot of other studies and draw big-picture conclusions based on their results – involving CLA research in humans.
"The fat loss meta-analysis shows that there's a modest body-fat reducing effect from about three grams daily of mixed isomer CLA," says Lowery. What's "modest?" A couple of extra pounds of fat loss over a three-month period, a bit more over a half-year or so.
Similarly, a 2009 meta-analysis from the same group showed reliable but small gains in fat-free mass with CLA consumption – an effect that wasn't related to (higher) dose or length of treatment.
The effect of dosing about 3 grams daily? Approximately 2/3 pounds lean mass. This corroborates some of Lowery's early work from back in 1998 that specifically looked at modest but measurable lean mass and strength gains in weight training subjects. (A new review paper will include this research in 2010.)
The human body-composition work isn't exactly as exciting as those ripped rats with impressive resistance to muscle loss, but hey, a couple of extra pounds of body fat loss and a little muscle gain along with some of CLA's other potential benefits as a COX-2 inhibitor? I'll take it.
Luckily, Biotest has already given us all the CLA we need in Flameout®, so if you're taking that you're covered. And there's no need to take more since mega-dosing CLA may have some negative health effects.
Fish Oil for Overtraining Symptoms?
If we had to pick one supplement that should form the foundation of your health and longevity goals, we'd have to say it's fish oil. We could write a whole article on their benefits and most T NATION writers have. Dr. Lowery mentioned several, including less cardiac death, mood elevation, inflammation reduction, and even body fat reduction. (Exercising when taking fish oils showed improved fat loss in one study on women.)
But what about EPA/DHA and actual athletes? Well, Lowery put on his theoretical physiologist hat and said that the consumption of fish oil may alleviate the depression that comes with overtraining syndrome for those that train hard six or seven days a week.
"Overtraining syndrome is very real. It's not common, but I've experienced it myself. I'm talking about being wrecked on the couch for a month with mono-like symptoms," says Lowery.
"Now, everyone knows that fish oils are mood elevating. So, could that potentially fix some of the apathy, depression, and loss of motivation that comes from true overtraining syndrome? I think it's a potential application."
Again, some cool thoughts for those of us who take Flameout® daily as a staple supplement.
Big Lowery's Practical Applications
After I listened to Dr. Lowery talk about carbon bonds and uncoupling proteins for an hour, I always like to end our chats by asking him what he does in real life with all this research and cutting-edge science? What's his dietary fat intake look like?
"I eat more whole eggs that I used to," says Lowery. "I have a family history of low cholesterol anyway, so if whole eggs might help me gain lean mass, then bring 'em!"
Lowery also eats mixed nuts and natural peanut butter in glass jars (to avoid the plastic toxins that could leach into fatty foods), and he uses olive oil. Not extra-virgin olive oil either. He prefers the versatility and more neutral flavor of standard olive oil. (This is often just labeled as "pure olive oil.") Lowery also gets his fats from beef – 90% lean burger when buying ground – and takes his fish oils.
LL also never eats more than 50 grams of fat at a sitting. Why? Because some research has shown that if you go above 50 grams or so in a feeding, then the body begins to store more of it as body fat rather than burning it. It's not a hard and fast rule, but it's something to keep in mind.