Health Benefits of EFAs

Group of polyunsaturated fats

Magazine 20 #3

My body aches; a deep, dull pain that feels like a bruise on the surface of the bone. The muscles are as tight as piano wires, stretched painfully from origin to insertion point. I trained my legs five days ago and it seems as if the delayed-onset muscle soreness has cruelly timed its peak for the very day in which I was next going to squat. I’m tired – exhausted in fact, but I stroll over to the power rack anyway, knowing that once I get going, willpower will drive me through the required sets.

As I approach the rack, with my cowboy-style gait, it feels like bending my knees will be an impossible task. I know that gravity, more reliable than the eternal sunrise, will take care of that – gravity, and the 365-pound bar I will be using on my work sets. The real challenge will be for me to slow my descent, resist the shearing forces of the kinetic plunge, and drive the bar back up to a standing position – with my joints screaming the whole time.

Dietary fats fitness-conscious people

Once accomplished, I get to repeat the process five to eight more times. Then, after a brief three-minute rest I get to do it again, and, just for good measure, I do it again for a total of three heavy sets.

I assume it is the diet that is making me so weak, but since my body is greedily holding on to a thick cummerbund of adipose, the caloric restrictions seems cruel and perplexingly pointless. With a target date 21-days away, I realistically know I look six-weeks out. If I restrict my calories any more I doubt I will be able to crawl out of bed. My brain is already foggy at best. At what point does it just stop functioning?

It is hard to make improvements in the gym when you have to drag your butt in the door. It is even harder to make gains when you haven’t recuperated from your last workout and your shoulders and knees ache. Is this level of effort worthwhile when the payoff is mediocre at best?

Leg day and I’m ready. Mark, my training partner, shows up ten minutes late. I half-expected it. He seems determined to delay the inevitable. The extra time on the treadmill is a welcome opportunity to focus on the mental prep for what I will be accomplishing soon.

My diet, if you can even call it that, is looser than its been in the past but the results are coming with much less effort. My energy levels seem elevated and more stable than they were in the past. This has served to improve my training. I have the strong, pliable joints of a man a decade younger and find that the gym’s sound system is no longer accompanied by the Rice Krispies like popping in my shoulders, elbows and knees.

The difference? The difference in the two leg training days was a matter of a simple evolution in my diet. I was well versed in low-carb dieting in the first example. Because of the fact that I do not tolerate carbs well, I knew that it was a good eating strategy for my particular metabolism. I simply kept my carbs low, ate tons of protein and didn’t worry about the naturally occurring fats in my foods. It worked for me, but was only half of the equation.

Dietary fats seem to be the last piece of the puzzle for most fitness-conscious people. Maybe it is our natural tendency to think of all fats as the same; that greasy stuff that adds richness to our diet and either makes foods roll luxuriously across our tongue or drips grotesquely down our chin while eating "road food."

But by taking things to that next level, and scientifically adding specific fats into your diet in precise ratios, you can trigger major changes in your physique. The best nutritional addition needed by those who believe they are already eating well would be the inclusion of EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids) to their daily diet. This can have a profound effect on their appearance and physical performance. As a side effect, EFAs bring about a multitude of positive health benefits, and that’s not such a bad thing.

What are EFAs? EFAs are a group of polyunsaturated fats that cannot be manufactured by the body. As such, they must be consumed as part of your eating plan. The two types of EFAs (differentiated by their chemical structure) are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Of the two, omega-3 fatty acids are more deficient in the typical diet and this, in addition to their remarkable benefits; require greater quantities to be added than omega-6 fats in order to create an optimal athletic diet. Omega-9 fats are non-essential (since the body is able to manufacture them) and more commonly found in the normal diet, so they can be supplemented in smaller quantities. Balancing the proportion of these fats can have rather dramatic effects.

Just to familiarize yourself with some of the types of omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is metabolized in the body and converted to DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA can also be directly consumed to bypass the conversion process. Synthesizing these fats is an enzyme-dependant function that becomes less efficient as one ages, which is why it is wise for bodybuilders older than thirty to supplement fats directly in these forms.

EFAs as a Macronutrient

The optimal bodybuilding diet is far lower in carbs than the diet of the average "civilian." The typical dieting strategy of gradually replacing starchy carbs (rice, potatoes, pasta and breads) with low calorie, fibrous carb sources (steamed broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, salads) is a simple and universally-effective tactic. The next step is to replace some of your carbs with protein and fat, giving you a slowly-releasing energy source that does not cause dramatic insulin fluctuations.

But simply consuming any type of fat can have negative metabolic consequences. Eating saturated or transfats can increase insulin sensitivity, making it easier to gain unwanted bodyfat. These are also the ugly fats responsible for all of the negative artery-clogging health problems that have given fats such a bad name.

On the other hand, EFAs have been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity, which increases the tendency of the calories you ingest being driven into the muscle and liver (in the form of glycogen to fuel your training) rather than being driven into fats cells to plump you up. Controlling insulin sensitivity is one of the best ways to improve both your physique and your performance in the gym or in any sport you should choose.

Health Benefits of EFAs

On a cellular level, lipids are a part of every cell membrane. Even in extremely ripped individuals, a three-percent bodyfat level seems to be about the bare essential needed for survival. The attempt to be any lower than this would compromise health with no benefit to your level of rippedness (or is the proper term rippedosity?).

In regards to health, EFAs seem to exert their most remarkable health benefits on the heart and cardiovascular system. Even a modest inclusion of fish oils in the diet has been shown to have a remarkable effect at improving the HDL/LDL ratio and dramatically decreasing the risk of heart attacks. By limiting saturated and transfats and replacing them with the healthier omega fatty acids, there is a decrease in the risk of strokes, arthrosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) and heart attacks. The incidence of sudden death from heart attacks is greatly decreased in those that have a greater level of healthy fats in their diet. High blood pressure is often dramatically turned around (without the need for prescription drugs) simply be adding gram quantities of EFAs. If you suffer from any of these conditions, discuss the inclusion of EFAs into your diet with your chosen health care provider. If you do not suffer from these conditions, you should consider EFAs as a possible preemptive deterrent to developing any of them.

EFAs have been shown to decrease inflammation. They can help lessen allergic reactions and protect against inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Krohn’s disease, lupus and asthma. If joint inflammation is a particular problem, it is a good idea to try a product containing Evening Primrose Oil, such as Joint Care. The fats contained in this formula (as well as the other active ingredients) encourage the elimination of inflammation while lubricating the joints. For those that have decided to make intense training a lifetime habit, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Healthy joints mean less time nursing injuries and more time pushing big weights.

Fats have an integral function for the brain and nervous system. The myelin sheath, which forms the protective coating of nerves and is responsible for transmitting nerve impulses is compromised primarily of fat. A whopping 20% of the dry weight of the brain is made of EFAs, which is why fish oils are often referred to as “brain food.” Ample supplies of EFAs have been shown to assist with the brain’s ability to properly manufacture neurotransmitters (such as serotonin which has been shown to reduce stress). Studies have indicated that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation may have a positive effect on bipolar disorder (manic depression), attention deficit disorder, mood, visual function, pain regulation and feelings of general well-being (as well as improving cognitive abilities such as memory and response time).

The omega-3 and omega-6 fats are also synthesized by the body to create eicosanoids, which are hormone-like substances that regulate a variety of body functions. These can affect blood pressure, recovery and immune function, blood clotting and a host of other important effects. A proper balance of omega-3 and omega- 6 is important to ensure a greater production of “beneficial” eicosanoids. Since omega-3 fatty acids are the most difficult to obtain in the typical diet, it is recommended that you supplement them with a product that biases their formula towards higher levels of omega-3s.

EFAs for Bodybuilding

Now here are the two benefits that we, as bodybuilders, REALLY care about – Essential Fatty Acid’s effects on bodyfat loss and muscle gain. The good news is that the results are impressive! The same reduced blood viscosity that makes fish oils so valuable at preventing heart attacks also means that they cause an increase in bloodflow, resulting in faster recuperation (washing away of waste byproducts of intense training and replenishing vital nutrients) and greater endurance (more oxygen delivered in the bloodstream).

EFAs have been shown to increase metabolic rate, discourage fat storage and encourage the burning of stored body fat. Even if you keep your percentage of calories from fat the same, but replace saturated fats with EFAs, you will cause a major shift towards leanness. This makes EFAs a potent fat-burning facilitator, metabolic amplifier and fat-storage nullifier. The effects are almost impossible to believe!

EFAs have positive benefits to all the major muscle-building hormones. We’ve already discussed their effect on insulin sensitivity, which is hugely important in bodybuilding. They also help with hormone synthesis (including providing the structural basis of testosterone). If that wasn’t enough, EFAs have a positive effect on growth hormone release and are vital to proper functioning and manufacturing of eicosanoids and prostaglandins.

If you aren’t hooked on Essential Fatty Acids by this point, you never will be! The accompanying sidebar gives you some easy practical suggestions on how to choose the right oils and work them into your eating plan. Give it six months time and I have no doubt you will find that increasing your EFA intake will improve the way you look, the way your body feels and may even keep you from getting as many colds and “down” days. In addition to all these things, your body will thank you for the improvement to your health.

Basic rules

You don’t need to be a chemist or consult a reference guide to figure out which fats to add to your diet. These basic rules will eliminate the guesswork from your decisions:

  1. Allow fat to make up roughly 25- 30% of your calories, but limit saturated fats to less than 20% of these fat grams. EFAs are vital nutrients; you need them in gram (not milligram) amounts daily. If you are training hard, you are asking more of your body’s systems and they are even more crucial.
  2. 2: Try to eat fish two to three times a week. If you don’t like fish, supplemental EFAs containing fish oils are even more important!
  3. 3: Flavor salads and vegetables with healthy oils, such as olive oil. Mix these with spices, lemon/lime and/ or red wine vinegar. Use three tablespoons olive oil for every tablespoon of flaxseed oil for a healthy boost of omega fatty acids.
  4. Avoid cooking with any types of fat. A light misting of a vegetable or olive oil spray (such as Pam) to keep items from sticking to your cooking pans should be the extent of use in your regular cooking procedures. 8: Avoid fats that are solid at room temperature. These are saturated or hydrogenated (transfatty acid) fats.
  5. 9: AVOID overly processed foods. When scanning the ingredients be aware of partially hydrogenated oils and trans-fatty acids. Even if only found in small quantities, they have a potent negative effect.