The Evolution of Dietary Fat in Bodybuilding Nutrition


by Mike Arnold

As one of the three basic macronutrients, fats play a vital role in the growth and development of the human body. There are essential for proper functioning and are involved in myriad physiological processes ranging from the formation of cell membranes, nerve transmission, the absorption of vitamins, hormone production, protection of vital organs, the insulation and regulation of body temperature, and of course, they are a readily available and easily utilized source of energy.

While dietary fat in general is capable of performing most of these functions, fats have a much broader range of effects in the body, many of which are unique to the type of fat consumed. To this end, all fats are not created equal. There are four basic categories of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans-fat. For decades, saturated fat was unjustly labeled as one of the bad guys; accused of being a main player in the development of heart disease, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats were considered to be healthy. Even the man-made trans-fats were long considered to be a heart-healthy alternative to saturated fats due to their unsaturated nature. While trans-fats do occur naturally in small quantities and can have important health benefits, we cannot say the same for man-made trans-fats (ex. margarine), which have since been recognized as damaging to our health.

With the exception of man-made trans-fat, we now know better than to label fats as good or bad based on these categorizations. The truth is that all of them can and should be part of one’s diet when maximum health is desired. However, corporate greed has resulted in the denaturation, nutritional depletion, and pollution of nearly all our fat sources, turning many of them from nutritional powerhouses into health-destroying poisons.

You see, many fats/oils in their natural state are less stable than their processed/refined alternatives, making them more susceptible to heat and allowing them to turn rancid more quickly. They also tend to possess a stronger flavor and brighter hue. From the perspective of the food industry, this limits potential applications and reduces shelf-life, lowering overall profits. Unfortunately, when determining which fats are good for them and which one’s aren’t, the average consumer doesn’t look any farther than the fat’s original source, leaving them vulnerable to the corporate chicanery of profit-driven operations.

Many of todays most commonly used fats, such as canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil, peanut oil, palm kernel oil, etc, are some of the very worst fats in existence. Yet, these same fats are frequently touted as the healthiest options by certain health authorities. Often, their unsaturated nature is pointed at as proof of their superiority, while uneducated consumers buy this shit right up.

Most unrefined (i.e. raw/virgin) plant-based fats that are edible in their natural form (ex. Sunflower seeds) provide significant health benefits and need not be eliminated from the diet. However, the oils derived from these plants, once they make their way to the store shelf, have been severely processed, eliminating the health benefits they once possessed, while also containing toxic byproducts as a result of the refining process. Some of the oils we see at the store were never even edible in their natural form. In fact, some of these oils don’t even exist in nature.

For example, canola oil; a term which was derived from the words “Canada” and “oil”, is a genetically modified version of the rapeseed plant. The oil within the rapeseed is actually toxic to human beings, due to a substance called erucic acid, which was show to cause heart damage in animals. This is why rapeseed oil is never used as a food source, but only for industrial purposes. Still, canola has been widely promoted by the food industry as being one of the most heart-healthy cooking oils available—a disgusting, outright lie which is currently damaging the health of countless millions worldwide.

Almost every store-bought cooking oil, unless it specifically says raw/virgin/non-refined on the label (most manufacturers who sell these oils make sure to mention this in big, bold letters in order to distinguish their products from the processed alternatives), has almost certainly been processed to death—literally. Most store-bought cooking oils are exposed to a crazy amount of processing involving chemical solvents, neutralizers, steamers, bleach, de-waxers, and deodorizers before they are finally packaged.

Often, the primary solvent used to extract these oils is hexane—a potent neurotoxin and carcinogenic agent produced as a by-product of gasoline production, and in case you were wondering, yes, toxic hexane residues do remain in the oil. Disturbingly, they aren’t tested for by the FDA, which means you won’t find them on the label. Furthermore, the omega-3’s in these oils, when exposed to high-heat processing, undergo a transformation in which they are changed into trans-fats, but once again, the FDA does not require these trans-fats to be listed on the label. So much for a “heart-healthy” fat.

At this point, after having become aware of the above, does it even matter if I tell you that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is seriously out of balance, causing systemic inflammation and increasing the risk of developing virtually all degenerative diseases?

If this didn’t scare you into being more discriminatory regarding the kind of fats you include in your diet, whether intentionally added or as part of pre-made foods, I doubt much else will. While I am not going to delve into all the ill health effects these processed oils can and do regularly cause, there is an abundance of easily sourced information on the subject, for those of you who understand the seriousness of the situation and desire to educate yourselves further.

But what about fats that come from animals, such as butter, or minimally processed foods that are fat-based, such as peanut butter? When it comes to animal fats, you have to look at 3 main factors when determining their suitability as a food source. 1.) Has the animal been fed a natural diet? 2.) Was the animal subjected to treatment with growth promoting drugs and/or antibiotics? 3.) Was the animal’s food organic, or was it exposed to pesticides and herbicides? While we could go even deeper and talk about the issue of animal “type” as it relates to our health, it is somewhat outside the scope of this article and will not be addressed.

We have all heard the saying “you are what you eat”. While this is true, in some cases we can more accurately state “you are what your animals eat”. Much of what we consume, whether good or bad, is absorbed into the body and stored within our muscle and fat tissue. It is no different with animals. However, when we eat these animals, everything that was stored within their tissues is then delivered into our own bodies, having either a positive or negative effect on our health. Whether this fat comes from the animal’s flesh or its milk (ex. butter) makes no difference.

One thing we need to understand when evaluating an animal’s diet is that many foods which would be considered healthy for human beings are not healthy for animals, so we cannot judge an animal’s diet according to human standards. Otherwise, we may come to false conclusions. For example, most cows today are fed corn or a combination or corn and soy. These foods, while a natural food source for humans, are never consumed by cows in the wild. Cows are as likely to munch on corn and soy as we are to eat a handful of grass, but when this is the only thing they are given, they don’t have much choice.

When cows are fed a grain-base diet such as this, it drastically changes the nutritional profile of the milk they produce and therefore, the butter/fat which comes from it. While corn-fed butter is still greatly preferable to the heavily processed vegetable oils mentioned above, it is still far inferior to butter that comes from cows which have been fed their natural diet—grass.

When assessing semi-processed fat-based food such as peanut butter, one needs to be careful to look at the labels. While peanut butter is mostly just mashed up raw peanuts, which leaves their nutritional value intact, many manufactures add trans-fats to them, as they believe it increase the overall palatability of the finished product. Obviously, this devalues the product, but the majority of consumers aren’t even aware of their inclusion. This problem is easily solved by purchasing “all-natural” peanut butter, which, although usually having a slightly different texture, is nearly indistinguishable in terms of taste, while being devoid of unwanted trans-fats. Most grocery stores will carry at least a couple of these all-natural versions. When it comes to fat-based whole foods such as peanut butter, all you really need to do in order to see if anything undesirable was added is read the label.

If you’re like most bodybuilders, you pride yourself on your nutritional expertise as it pertains to muscle growth and health. Yet, most of us fall short when it comes to understanding the full range of effects that conventional cooking oils/fats have on the body. In Part #1 of this article I provided the reasoning behind the claim, alerting others to the destructive and dangerous refining techniques employed by the majority of today’s oil manufacturers.

Although this might have been an eye opener for some, the fact is that oils/fats play an important role in food preparation, making their use a foregone conclusion in the minds of many. However, we need not accept the potential health consequences in exchange for increased versatility, as there are several newer oils/fats on the market that pack one hell of a nutritional wallop while providing the same degree of versatility found with conventional cooking oils.

As bodybuilders, we place tremendous emphasis on the types of protein and carbs we include in our diet, being meticulous with their placement because we realize that our decisions in this area will have a profound impact on our bodybuilding progress. As one of the 3 essential macronutrients, fat is no less influential, affecting virtually every aspect of our physiology in a multitude of ways. Should we therefore not give equal consideration to this aspect of our diet, taking care to consume only those fats which provide the effects we desire?

If we look at the typical bodybuilding diet, we will find that animal fats, such as those derived from chicken, beef, eggs, etc, are the most prevalent. Although nutritionally sound when sourced from animals fed a natural diet, regular store bought animal fat (whether it comes from muscle tissue or dairy products/butter) do not meet this criteria and therefore possess a sub-optimal, and in some cases harmful effect on our health.

While extra virgin olive oil is a good example of a healthy fat that has been part of bodybuilding nutrition for some time, its distinct flavor can be off-putting for some, while those who do include it usually only do so occasionally or in small quantities. Raw/virgin coconut oil has also become popular over the last couple years, but like extra virgin olive oil, it usually makes up only a small percentage of most bodybuilders total fat intake. Other fats have enjoyed various levels of popularity over the years, but for the most part, the quality of fat within the typical bodybuilding diets is poor.

Below I have listed 3 of the very best cooking oils/fats available, each with its own unique set of health benefits. Although suitable for all population groups, the phytonutrients within some of these fats provide potent cardioprotective effects, helping to mitigate AAS induced cardiovascular damage. Furthermore, replacing conventional cooking oils/fats with the options presented below will help you lay the foundation for an improved muscle building environment, while also improving your overall health.

Raw Avocado oil

This interesting oil is probably best known for its extremely high smoking point, allowing it to be used for high-heat cooking without incurring damage to the oil or the nutrients within it. With a smoking point of 375-400 degrees for raw avocado oil and as high as 500 degrees for cold-pressed varieties (raw oil is always preferable, but minimally refined, cold-pressed versions are greatly preferable to conventional cooking oils for very high-heat cooking) it can withstand higher temperatures than any other raw/virgin oil.

However, there are significant differences between raw and minimally refined versions. Although the raw version should be used whenever possible, I mention the minimally refined version for only one reason—because raw avocado oil is both dark green in color and has a mild avocado taste. This can cause food discoloration and alter its taste. This is fine when such attributes fit well with the food being prepared, but can be problematic with many dishes. On the other hand, the minimally refined version is clear and won’t alter the flavor of the food it is prepared with. Knowing that some high-heat foods/recipes require a clear, flavorless oil able to be heated over 400 degrees, I wanted to provide you with a non-health damaging alternative.

Raw avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fat (about 73% of its total fat content) and although its ratio of omega 3’s to omega 6’s is less than ideal (still better than many other fats), it is comprised of over 60% oleic acid, which has been clinically linked to improved immune response, reduced inflammation, and improved cardiovascular health. It has been shown to enhance the absorption of cartenoids from cartenoid-rich foods, such sweet potatoes, carrots, and leafy greens by as much as 200%-600%.

It is also loaded with phytonutrients from several categories, the first of which are the phytosterols. This includes beta-sitosterol, campesterol, and stigmasterol, which have potent anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering effects. Avocado oil also contains cartenoids of its own, the most abundant of which is chrysanthemaxanthin, followed by neoxanthin, transneoxanthin, neochrome, and several forms of lutein. This class of phytonutrients is thought to help reduce susceptibility to certain forms of cancer, while protecting against eye diseases and promoting overall eye health/function.

Avocados are particularly rich in catechins and procyanidins, which belong to the group of phytonutrients known as flavonoids. Catechins have been associated with a variety of beneficial effects, including decreased blood pressure, increased fatty acid oxidation (fat loss), a resistance of LDL to oxidation, and increased antioxidant activity. Not surprisingly, avocado has been clinically shown to reduce oxidative stress after eating. Procyanidins, the primary component of red wine responsible for the French Paradox, have been shown inhibit arteriosclerosis, thereby lowering heart attack risk.

Raw red palm fruit oil

This next oil is one of my favorites. This stuff is derived from the red palm; a tropical tree native to parts of South America and Asia. It differs greatly from the commonly used palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the seed of the red palm and heavily refined, resulting in an opaque, nutritionally devoid, health damaging oil. Raw red palm oil is not refined and comes from the flesh of the red palm fruit. It is bright orange-red in color and solid at room temperature. It is has a mild, pleasant flavor and is extremely versatile, pairing well with many different types of food.

It contains about 50% saturated fat and is comprised of both oleic and palmitic acids, while having a smoking point of 300 degrees. This makes it suitable for moderate-heat cooking. Because oven cooking does not bring the food into direct contact with the heat source (unlike pan cooking), it can sustain temps of about 325 degrees when cooked in the oven. Like avocado oil, red palm fruit oil is loaded with nutrients. It is rather unique in this regard, as it contains large quantities of certain nutrients that are rarely found in other fats in meaningful quantities. I am talking about vitamin E. Vitamin E? Yes, vitamin E, but not just any form of vitamin E. In order for you to understand the true value of this nutrient, allow me to provide you with a brief explanation as to why this particular nutrient is so important.

There are 8 different forms of vitamin E, which are evenly divided into 2 different categories. These are the tocotrienols and the tocopherols. Most forms of vitamin E sold in supplement form are either tocopherols or synthetic versions. Of those which contain tocopherols, many of them contain only a single tocopherol, while the better products will contain some or all of them. Synthetic versions are completely worthless and can actually impair the absorption of natural forms of vitamin E, robbing you of their benefits (synthetic vitamin E does not provide anywhere near the same benefits as full spectrum natural vitamin E), so they should be strictly avoided.

While tocopherols play an important role in human health, they are very different from their close cousins, the tocotrienols, which are supported by impressive body of clinical research detailing their beneficial effects. Unfortunately, most people don’t consume anywhere close to enough of this valuable nutrient, leaving themselves at risk for disease and illness. Just in the area of cardiovascular health alone, research has shown the ability of tocotrienols to improve the lipid profile, help normalize blood pressure, reduce levels of homocysteine (a marker of cardiovascular disease), reduce atherosclerotic lesions, inhibit the formation of new fat deposits, improve cardiac functioning, and decrease levels of inflammatory cells in heart muscle.

Research as also revealed the ability of tocotrienols to protect against ischemia (i.e. the ability to reduce heart muscle damage post-heart attack) in heart attack victims. In those who have suffered a stroke, they can protect against stroke-related brain damage by slowing the conversion of specific fatty acids into pro-inflammatory molecules, reduce oxidant damage in brain tissue, and assist in the restoration of blood flow to injured areas. As if that weren’t enough, tocotrienols are able to lower blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity, both of which are associated with improved cardiovascular health. That is one hell of an amazing list of cardiovascular benefits!

The bright orange color of the oil is due to the presence of carotenes, of which red palm fruit oil has over a dozen, along with co-enzyme Q10 and a bunch of other vitamins and minerals. It is hard to find any fault with this tropically grown fat source. Although it is not yet stocked by most of the chain grocery stores, it can be found at establishments such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

Grass-fed butter

I will confess. I eat more grass-fed butter than any other fat in the world—by a large margin. The first reason is because it tastes better than any other fat, and the second is because it is packed with such a diverse array of nutrients that few other foods can hold a candle to it. This is to be expected, as it is a primary component of milk and is used to help sustain the growth and development of a living animal for the first year of its life!

Grass-fed butter is made up of over 400 different fatty acids, with a saturated fat content of roughly 50%. Of that, MCT’s (medium chain triglycerides) making up about half of it. MCT’s are quite different from other forms of saturated fat in that they are unlikely to be stored as body fat, do not contribute to artheriosclerosis, and more likely to be used as energy. In terms of health benefits, they increase fatty acid oxidation, overall energy expenditure, and have also been shown to reduce appetite and improve body composition.

Grass-fed butter contains a 3:1 ratio of omega 3’s to omega 6’s; ideal for cardiovascular health. This is in stark contrast to corn-fed butter, which possesses a ratio of about 10:1. Grass-fed butter also contains 5X as much CLA as corn-fed butter, which imparts immune system benefits, aides in fat loss, and has positive effects on muscle growth.

In terms of phytonutrients it contains both isoflavones (formononetin, biochanin A, prunetin) and lignans (secoisolariciresinol and matairesinol), as well as an array of vitamins and minerals. Of these, Vitamin K2, which should not be confused with vitamin K1 (found in green, leafy vegetables), has garnered the most attention due to its unique ability to reverse arterial decalcification. For those of you who are unaware, this is a big deal!

You see, arterial plaque (the direct cause of heart attacks), once formed, was previously thought to be irremovable. In other words, once your arteries were clogged, you were screwed, and the best you could do was to stop it from progressing any further. Up until 2006, there were no known pharmaceutical drugs capable of removing these fatty deposits—that was until Crestor, a powerful statin, was shown to promote moderate arterial decalcification. The downside is that statins, particularly Crestor, has several unwanted side effects ranging from muscle weakness/damage, polyneuropathy (nerve damage in the hands and feet), and rhabdomyolysis; a serious condition in which muscle tissue contents are leaked into the bloodstream, causing muscle destruction and possible death. They can also cause acidosis, pancreas and liver dysfunction/damage, and interfere with the proper conversion of hormones, resulting in numerous, adverse effects throughout the body.

Basically, there is no safe prescription drug which can reverse plaque build-up and even when it comes to Crestor (not all statins have been shown to remove plaque), the results are only mild-moderate. This is why Vitamin K2 is so special. Not only does it help prevent/reverse arterial calcification, but it is actually good for you. Butter contains the most potent variant of vitamin K2 and in higher quantities than almost all other foods.

Butter also contains a substance called butyrate—more than any other food known. The number of health benefits attributable to this compound reads like a grocery list: Improved gut barrier integrity, reduced inflammation, increased resistance to metabolic and physical stress, increased mitochondrial function and energy expenditure via heat production (resulting in enhanced fat loss), improved cholesterol, lower resting insulin levels, and increased insulin sensitivity, among many others. Some have speculated that butyrate, due to its potent effects on a number of bodily processes, may be a fundamental regulator of metabolism, stress resistance and the immune system in mammals. So much for butter (specifically grass-fed butter) being an instigator of cardiovascular disease and obesity!

There are just some of the newer, unrefined fats making their way into supermarkets. While there is certainly good cause to include all of these fats within our diet, one should not abandon the more commonly used unrefined fats, but utilize them all as part of a healthy lifestyle. One example is extra virgin olive oil; a nutritional powerhouse with potent anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-obesity, and digestive and immune system benefits. In terms of cardiovascular protection, extra virgin olive oil is in a class all its own, containing 9 different classes of cardioprotective polyphenols and over 2 dozen well researched anti-inflammatory agents.

Raw coconut oil is another great fat source, especially for high-heat cooking, as it will maintain its integrity at temperatures up to 375-400 degrees. While not as nutritionally dense as the previously mentioned fats, it is still a healthy option and contains more MCT’s than any other oil, making up almost 90% of its fat content. When it comes to experiencing maximum health benefits in all the areas listed above, whether cardiovascular or otherwise, the key is to consume a wide variety of these fats, as they all contain their own unique substances, many of which work in unison to deliver maximum overall benefits.

When comparing these natural, unrefined fats to the heavily processed, chemically laden oils which line supermarket shelves, there is no comparison. The first are health promoting super-foods, while the later are health destroying poisons. Do yourself a favor and make the change. Take a few minutes to learn the best way to use these fats in food preparation and you will reap the benefits.