The Fat Edge
Athletes hate fat. Some try to eat none at all. To avoid offending readers, sports mags rarely write about fat, except to condemn it. Supplement makers keep the fat way down in their sports bars and drinks, for fear of losing customers. It’s a huge nutritional mistake, because without the right fats, you will never achieve your potential.
When I told my friend, former world wrestling champ, Leo Stern, to take a tablespoon a day of organic flax oil, he voiced the usual athlete’s objections about the 12 grams of fat in it. Yet, without a regular supply of the two essential fats that comprise the bulk of flax oil, and occur in a few other oils, optimum body function is impossible.1-3
Even if you do allow fats in your diet, getting the right fats is a tough job, because they’re scarce in today’s food.1 Colgan Institute records show hundreds of athletes, whose performance was sub-optimal because of essential fatty acid deficiency. To prevent it happening to you, or more likely to correct it, here’s all you ever need to know about fats.
Your Body Makes Fats
Your body is brilliant at making fats. As dieters know only too well, it creates a ton of bodyfat from any food, sugars, proteins or fats. It can even turn hormones like insulin into fat.1 But two fats it cannot make, linoleic acid, (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid, (omega-3).2 They must be obtained from your food.
These fats are essential, because they are the raw materials used to make all the special fats, in the structure of your brain, eyes, ears, testes, ovaries, adrenals and the membranes that surround and protect every cell in your body. Without essential fats in your diet, you could not think, see, hear, reproduce, run, or even move a muscle.2,3 Whenever the dietary supply is inadequate, all these functions inevitably decline.
Sounds incredible that a wee bit of fat makes all the difference between first and also ran. To explain how it works, I have to dip into a smidgeon of chemistry. Stick with me. It’s a sure road to a long-term edge, that will push your athletic prowess beyond anything you ever dreamed possible.
Fats are Chemical Keys
All fats and oils are composed of fatty acids. To steal a simile from my friend, expert on fats, Udo Erasmus, each fat molecule looks like a caterpillar, with a fatty head and body and an acid tail. It’s chemical make-up is a chain of carbon atoms, with hydrogen atoms attached. As Figure 1 shows, fats differ from each other in the length of their carbon chains, and the number and arrangements of hydrogen atoms. These differences in shape are chemical keys, that absolutely determine whether a particular fat fits a particular lock of the human body, so that it can be used to build healthy flesh.
Avoid Saturated Fats
As their name implies, saturated fats have all their carbon atoms filled (saturated) with hydrogen atoms. They are straight caterpillars, blank keys, like the stearic acid illustrated in Figure 1, that lack the curves and notches needed to fit most of your body’s locks for fats. The body does use saturated fats for special purposes, such as part of the structure of fats called phospholipids, that form your cell membranes. But it can make those fats at will. Whenever you eat saturated fat, consider it useful only as fuel.
If you don’t burn it right away, saturated fat causes all sorts of mischief, infiltrating your heart, liver, and brain, and oxidizing into fatty deposits that grow to choke your arteries.4 To combat these problems, your body dumps as much saturated fat as possible out of the bloodstream, by stuffing it into adipose cells as bodyfat. There it lies, congealed caterpillars, dead weight, until you call on it for fuel.
The “Cellulite” Lesson
Your body can stuff a ton of saturated fat into adipose cells, because it is composed of straight caterpillars, chemically inert, that clump together neatly into solid clots. You also store your essential fats in the same adipose cells. So, if you eat a lot of fat, these cells get jam-packed and swell like balloons.
The best example is cottage cheese thighs. Thirty years back, cosmetics industry mavens spied princely profits, from spurious snake-oil potions, purported to smooth away those lumps. So they invented “cellulite”, to dupe women that it was different from ordinary bodyfat, and could be removed by creams, lotions, seaweed wraps, electrical zaps and similar tomfoolery.
Despite wide use of the word “cellulite” in women’s magazines, books, and products, a tribute to the power of promotional hype to fool us, it does not exist in science, nor in Webster’s or the Oxford dictionaries, or the PDR medical dictionary.5-7 It’s just a bogus marketing invention, which takes advantage of a highly visible demonstration, of the body’s ability to stuff so much saturated fat into adipose cells, they bulge right through the skin.
The Trouble With Clots
Their tendency to clot together, makes saturated fats solid at room temperature. It takes the heat of a cookstove, to agitate the molecules sufficiently, so they bounce off each other, creating spaces between them. With more space, but the same number of molecules, the solid cannot hold together, and lard melts into liquid.
At 98.6ºF,(37ºC) your body temperature is not high enough to liquefy saturated fats. Palmitic acid, for example, the main saturated fat in butter and beef, remains solid until it reaches 145ºF (63ºC). So it easily collects to form clots in your arteries. If you want optimum health and performance, leave saturated fats to those 60 million waddling indictments of the meat and dairy industry’s power to turn Americans into fat-processing plants to feed the bottom line.
Unsaturated fats, which include the two essential fats, are curvy caterpillars. Unlike saturated fats, whose carbons are filled with hydrogens, some of the carbons of unsaturated fats, have no hydrogens on one side at various points along the body. As Figure 1 illustrates, the carbons are unsaturated on that side.
Because the electromagnetic charges of the hydrogens on the other side repel each other, an unsaturated fat bends towards its unsaturated side, towards the empty spaces. The more empty spaces an unsaturated fat has, the more it bends. These empty spaces are called double bonds, and create what biochemists call a cis configuration.
Why am I spouting all this chemistry? Because double bonds are the precise notches of the chemical keys, that fit particular fat locks in your body. The bend of the carbon chain and the number and positions of the double bonds in a fat, absolutely determine its biological uses.3
Essential Fats Don’t Clot
The curves of essential fats and the electromagnetic charges created by their double bonds, makes it difficult for them to clump together tight enough to go solid at room or body temperature. So they remain liquid, and cannot form clots in your bloodstream.
They also remain in a loose mosaic, when your body converts them to the special fats, that combine with saturated fats, to make the phospholipids that compose your cell membranes.8 This loose fluid structure is vital to optimal body function, because it permits the easy flow of nutrients into the cell, and waste out of the cell. Without sufficient essential fatty acids, cellular nutrition is blocked like a plugged sinus, and health and performance go to hell in a handbasket.
Essential Fats Boost Oxygen Use
Essential fatty acids also work together, from different angles you might say, to help transfer oxygen to the alveoli of the lungs, and from there to the hemoglobin of red blood cells, your body’s oxygen transport system. Then, at the membranes of all cells, essential fatty acids “suck” the oxygen out of hemoglobin and into the cell.8 You can see from this function alone, that fatty acid status is crucial to athletic performance, because it partially determines the maximum amount of oxygen you can take up and deliver to muscles.
Essential Fats Reduce Bodyfat
Some popular books have recently advocated increased levels of fat in the diet to reduce bodyfat. But, because they do not understand the mechanisms involved, they seem to think that any old fat will do. No way! Only cis-essential fats will do the trick.
Nevertheless, based on these writings, the market is presently flooded with higher fat sports bars and supplements, most of which contain useless hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats. We will see exactly why they are useless below. Bars that do contain cis-essential fats are all rancid, because you cannot maintain the integrity of the highly biologically active cis-essential fats in a bar, nor anywhere else, outside of a dark-glass, tightly-capped, refrigerated bottle. If you eat these bars or supplements, expect a higher level of bodyfat, and poorer performance all round.
Cis-essential fats have the opposite effect. Recent research shows that eating them as your sole source of fat, at 12-15% of total daily calories, reduces bodyfat by at least three mechanisms. First, it increases metabolic rate and fat metabolism, yielding greater use of bodyfat for fuel.3,8 Second, it increases insulin efficiency. Dr. Leonard Storlien and colleagues, at the Garvin Institute of Medical Research in New South Wales, Australia, were the first to show that omega-3 fatty acids enhance insulin metabolism to such a degree, that they prevent insulin resistance and diabetes in diabetes-prone animals.13
A third mechanism by which cis-essential fats reduce bodyfat is control of prostaglandin production. Prostaglandins are hormone-like compounds, produced from essential fats that regulate many biological functions. As you will see below, understanding how they work is crucial to athletic performance. One function they help to regulate is your level of bodyfat.14,15
I hope my brief sketch of mechanisms by which cis-essential fats reduce bodyfat, is sufficient to convince you. There’s no longer any doubt in science that inadequate intake of these fats means higher bodyfat levels no matter what diet, fat loss drugs, or other attack on fat you may adopt. And if you think a few pounds of excess fat don’t make any difference to your performance, put on a 5 lb bodybelt, then run your best mile.
To understand other functions of essential fats, we have to look at the shape of the keys. The shape of the omega-6 essential fat, linoleic acid is cis 18:2:omega-6. Sounds complicated but it’s dead simple. The first figure, in this case 18, is the number of carbons in the caterpillar chain. The second figure, in this case 2, is the number of double bonds, empty spaces. The third figure, in this case 6, is the number of carbons along the chain where the first double bond occurs.
The shape of the omega-3 essential fat, alpha-linolenic acid is, cis 18:3: omega-3. As you can see from Figure 1, this key is differently notched and bent than linoleic acid, and fits a different set of body locks. From these two essential fats, your body makes all the other special fats of your brain, organs and cell membranes. It accomplishes this task, by using enzymes to cut out more hydrogens from the caterpillar, thereby creating more double bonds.< P>
Some of these fats you have heard of already, because they occur preformed in foods and supplements, and can substitute for the two essential fats in your diet. Gamma-linolenic acid for example, is a popular supplement extracted from borage and evening primrose oils. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the popular fish oils, extracted from cold-water fish, mainly salmon, mackerel and sardines. You will see below why these supplemental oils can form important additions to the two essential fats.
Human Destruction of Essential Fats
Ignorant men, consumed with greed, who developed the mass-production food oil industry, were concerned only to produce oils that looked pure, had no smell, and lasted for years on the shelf. But plant, seed, and fish oils, because of their unsaturated, and highly active nature, interact with everything. They oxidize with exposure to light, heat, and air, they mix easily with various other organic compounds. They also form a very healthy growing ground for all sorts of microscopic life. Like all good food, they quickly go bad.
To overcome these problems, oil industry idiots developed boiling processes, to sterilize unsaturated fats, and hydrogenation processes to add hydrogen atoms. These strategies distort or saturate most of the double bonds, and turn the biologically active cis fats into aberrant trans fats. Chemically, one of the hydrogens in the double bond gets twisted over to the other side of the molecule, so that the hydrogens no longer repel each other. The bend in the caterpillar straightens out and it loses its essential shape that fits the fat locks of your body.
Trans Fats Are Deadly
Trans fats are even deadlier for health and performance than saturated fats. To quote GJ Brisson, Professor of Nutrition at Laval University in Quebec, “Between the parent vegetable oil and the partially hydrogenated product,...there is a world of chemistry that alters profoundly the composition and physicochemical properties of natural oils.”16
Your body is highly adaptable. So, in the absence of a healthy fat supply, it tries to use unhealthy trans fats to pinch-hit for essential fats. In cell membranes for example, trans fats cause the protective membranes to leak, allowing toxic substances to enter the cell. Studies show that such leaky membranes cause abnormal cell activity that is detrimental to all body functions, and is linked to both cardiovascular disease and cancer.9-11 What do you think trans fats do to your sports performance?
Trans fats are everywhere in processed foods. Leading brand American margarines, for example, contain up to 60% trans fats. Salad oils contain up to 20%. Vegetable cooking oils and the french fries and other foods cooked in them, contain up to 40%. Baked goods including cakes, pies, and muffins contain up to 30% trans fats.3 If you really want to excel, leave them on the supermarket shelf.
Enlightened governments of long-lived countries like Holland, banned trans fats years ago. Margarines and oils with the essential cis fats preserved, are now common in Britain and the European community. Canada has also moved to eliminate trans fats, and now makes numerous canola oil products with the cis fats intact.
In America, however, the powerful food oil lobby has resisted all attempts to remove trans fats, because of the high costs of re-tooling the industry. They have even infiltrated the US National Academy of Sciences, so that warnings about trans fats have been omitted from the handbook of the Recommended Dietary Allowances.17 By condoning this omission, the Academy of Sciences, a supposed protector of American health, is directly promoting disease. Especially so, in the face of strong evidence against trans fats in numerous American medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine.18
Unfortunately, because they do not realize the extent of industrial control of American government, sheep-like medical authorities of Australia and New Zealand have largely followed US recommendations on fats. In New Zealand, the US Recommended Dietary Allowances are even cited in the law as nutritional standards. So both countries are awash with trans fats and, like America, have some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer on Earth.4,19 If the proud and independent peoples of those countries, realized what their milquetoast government scientists are doing to their health, there would be a revolution. As an athlete, you should have the discipline to remove yourself from this health farce, and eliminate trans fats from your diet.
Use Only Unprocessed Oils
Only certified organic, unprocessed oils can provide the two essential cis-fats you need; and only a few of these provide them in anything like the right proportions. The best oils for human consumption are shown in Table 1 below, along with some of the bad oils for comparison. The good oils are organic flax oil, organic pumpkin seed oil, fresh walnut oil, organic soybean oil and organic canola oil. Dark green leafy vegetables also contain small amounts. Supplements contain the good but expensive borage oil, blackcurrant seed oil, evening primrose oil and fish oils. Wild, but not farmed, cold-water fish, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout contain good supplies of omega-3 fats. But, as I’ve shown in previous books, you have to get fish fresh to gain the benefit.20
Since the 1850’s, because of food degradation and processing, the amount of intact omega-3 fatty acids in our diet has declined by 85%.8 The more robust omega-6 fatty acids have survived better, so the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our diet has increased to about 20:1, a very unhealthy situation.3,8,16 Organic flax oil, as Table 1 shows, contains only one part omega-6 to four parts omega-3. This should be your first choice to correct the likely long-standing omega-3 deficiency. I recommend a tablespoon or so, (12-18 grams) a day for athletes.
After a lengthy period (2-3 years), however, exclusive use of flax oil as your source of fats, could lead to an excess of omega-3 in your tissues. In a mixed diet this is unlikely, because American food contains very little omega-3 fats, and an overabundance of omega-6 fats. So taking into consideration the other fats we normally eat, the high omega-3 fats in flax oil, are balanced somewhat by the fat composition of the rest of the diet.
Nevertheless, companies seeking an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 have produced blends of organic flax, canola and other oils from the “good” list in Table1. When looking for such a blend, consider carefully the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats it contains. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats that compose your brain is 1:1. But the ratio in lean tissues is 1:4.3,8 So some companies stint on the more expensive omega-3 fats, using lean tissue levels as a rationale to save money.
But as we saw in Figure 2 above, omega-6 fats can promote production of inflammatory Series 2 prostaglandins, that will whack your athletic performance with long-lasting pain and inflammation.15 Omega-3 fats inhibit the synthesis of Series 2 prostaglandins, because they preferentially grab most of your delta-5 desaturase to make eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).15 If you feel a bit lost by now consult Figure 2, where all is made clear.
As insurance against inflammation and to hasten recovery from tough workouts look for an organic oil blend with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 2:1. Buy only brands in opaque, refrigerated bottles.
Official Recognition of Omega-3 Supplementation
As a last word, I received a news report two weeks ago that the Scandinavian and British Olympic committees have officially approved omega-3 fatty acid supplements for all their athletes. They now recognize the blatant omega-3 deficiency in Western diets, that I have been plugging for a decade with flax oil, and are content to leave the diet to supply omega-6.
Remember, even in the handbook of the Recommended Dietary Allowances, the recommended daily intake of essential fats in sedentary folk, is about 6 grams per day for linoleic acid (omega-6) and 2 grams per day for alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). That makes your daily requirement for essential fats, larger than for any other essential nutrient, vitamin or mineral. Make sure you get it.
For more information on Dr. Michael Colgan, visit his site at: www.colganinstitute.com
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- Erasmus U. Fats That Heal: Fats That Kill, Second Edition. Burnaby, BC; Canada: Alive Books, 1993.
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- Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary 2nd. Edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
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- PDR Medical Dictionary. Montvale NJ: Medical Economics, 1995.
- Kabara J. Pharmacological Effects of Lipids, Volume I, II, and III. Champaign IL: AOCS, 1978, 1985, 1989.
- Hopkins GJ, West CE. Life Sciences. 1976;19:1103.
- Oskai LB, in Wilmore JH, ed. Exercise and Sports Science Reviews, New York, NY: Academic Press, 1975;105-23.
- Enzi G, et al, eds. Obesity: Pathogenesis and Treatment, New York, NY: Academic Press, 1981.
- Lohman TG. Human Biology. 1991;53:181-225.
- Storlien LH, et al. Science. 1987;237:885
- Willis A. Handbook of Eicosanoids: Prostaglandins and Related Lipids, Volume 1, Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1987.
- Willis A. Handbook of Eicosanoids: Prostaglandins and Related Lipids, Volume 2, Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1989.
- Brisson GJ. Lipids in Human Nutrition, New York: Burgess, 1081;39
- Recommended Dietary Allowances, 10th Edition. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1989.
- Mensinck RP, et al. New Engl J Med, 1990, 323:439-445.
- Colgan M. Prevent Cancer Now . C.I. Publications, San Diego, 1992.
- Colgan M. Optimum Sports Nutrition. Advanced Research Press, New York, 1993.