With the increase in popularity of ‘low carbohydrate’ diets over the last few years you may have noticed the fat levels of some of the popular sports foods, in particular the bars and drink mixes, has crept up to levels which would have previously been considered ‘unacceptable’ by many fitness and nutrition enthusiasts. Whether we like it or not, by taking out the carbohydrate, something has to be put back in it’s place. The ideal situation of course, is adding more protein, but this often leads to unpalatable and/or unaffordable products.
In our quest to increase the protein levels and reduce the carbohydrate levels in our diets often the fat component of our diet is left to chance, being made up from whatever happens to be included with the particular foods we choose to eat rather than selected based on it’s nutritional merit or our physiological needs.
High Fat V Low Fat
Like most people I have tried the higher fat diets. In fact, I still find the Zone 40:30:30 style diet an excellent way to stay leaner in the off-season while still gaining muscle mass. The basis of the Zone style diets where food is selected based on glycemic index and fats are derived from “healthy” sources such as flax seed oil, almonds, and extra virgin olive oil makes it quite easy to obtain the essential fats required for optimal performance. However, I have found that to obtain the degree of definition and associated low level of body-fat required for stage, nothing works as well as a low fat diet and a few good servings of cardio exercise!
After following a diet rich in essential fatty acids, switching back to a low fat diet made me just a little concerned about exactly how low the fat content of a diet could be taken, and what health risks were associated with missing out on the essential fatty acids. Just as protein is essential for life, so is fat, or certain types of fat, namely Linoleic Acid, LA (omega-6) and Alpha Linolenic Acid, ALA (omega-3). Our bodies are not capable of making these types of fatty acids and without them other fatty acids essential to good health cannot be made.
The Role of the Essential Fatty Acid
Fat and protein work synergistically, forming lipoproteins, a whole family of organic compounds that make up every part of our bodies. As we increase our protein intake, it appears we increase the need for the essential fats to balance the level of protein. Our need for EFA’s also increases with stress, with exercise being recognized by the body as stress, it makes sense that people who train have an increased requirement for these nutrients.
EFAs are highly metabolically active and are used in exclusive ways in the brain, inner ear, eyes, adrenal glands and sex organs. They are essential for electron transport, and for oxidation, the central and most important moment-to-moment living process in our body, is the `burning’ of food to produce the energy required for life processes. They govern growth, vitality, and mental state. EFAs are also important in oxygen transfer, hemoglobin production, and control of nutrients through cell membranes. Very importantly for people who train, they markedly shorten recovery time from fatigue.
Health Risks Associated with EFA Deficiency
There are numerous conditions and disorders that can result from a deficiency of either LA or ALA. Some of these include:
|LA Deficiency||LNA Deficiency|
|Eczema-like skin eruptions*||Growth retardation*|
|Excessive sweating accompanied by thirst||Impairment of vision and learning ability|
|Susceptibility to infections||Reduction in motor coordination*|
|Failure of wound healing||Tingling sensations in arms and legs*|
|Arthritis-like conditions*||Behavioral changes|
|Heart and circulatory problems|
While none of these conditions is desirable, the ones I have marked are obviously more of a concern to a bodybuilder/weight trainer as they would have a negative impact on training and your muscle building potential or on your onstage appearance.
|Symptoms that respond remarkably well to LNA supplementation|
|High triglycerides (fat) in the blood||Mental deterioration|
|High blood pressure||Low metabolic rate|
|Sticky platelets||Some kinds of immune dysfunction|
|Tissue inflammation||Dry skin|
|Edema (water retention)||Ability to tolerate stress|
Balancing the EFA’s
While it is easy to lump the omega-3 and omega-6 fats together and call them EFA’s (because they are), it is extremely important to look at them separately. LA and ALA are found in different foods, with LA (omega-6) being much more abundant and easy to get adequate amounts in the diet. This has now led to an imbalance of the intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and this in itself can lead to problems. In fact Artemis Simopolous, M.D., who heads The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C believes an improper balance of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids predisposes us to chronic diseases’ for example, this skewed ratio may increase susceptibility to insulin resistance (often a precursor to diabetes) and high triglycerides, associated with heart disease. Other scientists believe a link exists between the increase in depression over the last century and the decrease in omega-3 consumption. Studies have shown people whose diets were supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids were better able to deal with stress and were generally less hostile and aggressive than those people whose diets had been supplemented with omega-6 fatty acids.
It is estimated that the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 in the diet is as high as 20:1 instead of the 3-5:1 that is recommended.
DHA, EPA And Evening Primrose Oil
So just where do eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fit into the picture and why all the recommendations to eat oily fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and tuna? Well, EPA and DHA are produced in the body from ALA with the help of a conversion enzyme, and these fatty acids are then used by the body in it’s essential life processes. As we get older (even as young as 30) there is a decline in the amount of the conversion enzyme in our bodies, so it is preferential to take EPA and DHA and eliminate the need for this conversion step. EPA and DHA are found in oily fish so that is where the recommendations to eat fish a couple of times a week come from.
The same thing applies with LA. Within the body an enzyme converts it to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), and again, there is an age related decline in this enzyme, so taking GLA is recommended rather than LA for people over 30. Evening Primrose Oil is probably the best-known source of GLA.
How Much Is Enough?
From what I could find in the literature, the most specific EFA intake recommended for good health is:
Linoleic Acid: 3 to 6% of total calories. So, if you are on a 2000 calorie diet this equals about 6 – 12g. The higher our intake of saturated fats, the more LA needed to both counteract the saturated fat, and also provide the nutrients our body needs to perform its functions. Using Virgin Olive Oil is one of the best ways to include LA in your diet if you aren’t already getting plenty of vegetable oils from your daily food intake. Remember, if you are over 30, it is worth adding some Evening Primrose Oil to ensure you get the gamma-linolenic oil that your body actually needs.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid: Somewhere from 1/5th to 1/2 as much LNA as LA, so that means 0.6% – 3% of total calories or about 1.3 – 6g per day for the 2000 calorie diet. It is worth noting that LNA is even more valuable in dispersing saturated fats, so an intake at the higher end of this recommendation is most likely more beneficial.
The simplest and easiest way to get ALA is in the form of DHA and EPA in fish (salmon) oil capsules. They are flavourless (but they do repeat a bit when you first start taking them), easy to take and a lot more stable than flaxseed oil, which needs to be kept out of light and refrigerated. Each capsule contains 1g of fish oil, and consisting of DHA (120mg) and EPA (180mg).
If you do use flaxseed, it contains about 35% oil, of which nearly 60% is ALA. You need 25g of raw flaxseed to get 5g of ALA, but you must grind the seeds up first. 10g of flaxseed oil will give you about 6g of ALA, but you mustn’t use this oil in cooking as it destroys the EFA’s.
NOTE: Because they’re highly unsaturated (more so even than other polyunsaturated fats), EFA’s are exceptionally susceptible to oxidation and turn rancid rapidly, a metamorphosis that undermines their value to cell membranes. For that reason, experts say if you up your intake of omega-3s, you should counter this downside by supplementing with the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin E. At least 200IU per day of Vitamin E is recommended to counteract omega-3 rancidity in the body.
As you can see, the minimum requirement for fat by the body is quite low, however, without adding fat to the diet there is still certain amounts of fat that are found inherently in foods. Adding the required amount of EFA’s to your diet will not negatively impact even those trying to follow extremely low fat diets.