The Fat of The Land – Fats and Endurance Sports
Part 4: Fats for Cycling and Endurance Sports – The Clean Burning Fuel
While fat has been labeled the cause of all health problems, take any language and when it comes to expressions to describe plenty they all say roughly the same thing – “to live of the fat of the land” or “the cream of the crop” to name just a few. Therefore it begs the question why did fat hold such a place in the daily lives of our forefathers, so important as to be remembered for generations and yet we are currently told from plethora of sources to avoid fat at all costs.
Bad Science and Worse Timing: Why Fat Was Labeled the Villain
Cultural Bias and Bad Science
The eyes sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend
Among other things, widely available food (and efforts to combat world hunger) is something that can be considered a hallmark of civilization. Therefore having to hunt for your meals and migrate according to food availability would invariably in most cases be considered as primitive. Millionaire financial guru Warren Buffet and one of the people responsible for modern computers as they are – Bill Gates, both agreed in an interview that outside societies as we know them today, they would be some animals lunch. How humanity has been developing and evolving is an ongoing study that anthropolgy focuses on, however, this is not the focus of this post.
Fuelled by our natural curiosity, mankind travelled and explored. The one caveat that with a lot of the documentaries is that they depend on the author’s point of view. We try to understand new information in the framework we know. As such civilizations that had the means to set forth and expand into new horizons considered the cultures they encountered as less developed (savages) and that observation was constantly reinforced into the numerous travel journals. It was the duty of the more advanced to teach their ‘brethren’ new and advanced ways. However, there was something that these cultures could teach or I should say remind ‘the white men.’ It is strange to see an explorer paying attention to what the indigenous have to teach him.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientsists.
-Richard P. Feynman
If we turn back to clock to when Homo sapiens or modern humans evolved it is about 2.5 million years ago, based on fossil evidence, and more or less our genes and dietary needs were developed at that time. At some point we were all ‘primitive’ and as the Warren Buffet/Bill Gates example pointed out – we had it a lot tougher before and somehow we made it. When food was scarce how come we managed to survive, live to tell the story and even create literature, science, technology etc.. More importantly we had survived despite NOT having much technology. Food was a big part of it, especially that it was not always abundant as it is today, so we had to rely on slowly released stored energy – fat – to survive. The domestication of animals and beginning of agriculture occurred roughly 10, 000 years ago, creating dairy products 9,000 years ago, sucrose (table sugar) was refined 2000 years ago with it becoming widely available approximately in the last 200 years. The same goes for refined vegetable oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined grains and almost all of the food you see packaged in the supermarket – 100 or so years back. Those time periods are merely a blip on the evolutionary time scale where even 10,000 years represents less than 1% of the time we have been roaming the Earth. While our food has changed at warp speeds, our genes have stayed the same.
Early colonial physicians noted that “diseases of civilization” (obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, various forms of cancer, peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, gal stones, haemorrhoids, varicose veins and constipation) appeared in the healthy indigenous populations once they were introduced to colonial food such as flour (biscuits), sugar, white rice and molasses. If one disease appeared, the rest followed. Diabetes was disease of the rich and wealthy until not too long ago. Gary Taubes has two fascinating books that I highly recommend on the matter that go in historical detail., together with his 2002 NY Times article. I am not going to repeat what somebody has already published, however, to briefly summarise most studies trying to show a direct correlation between dietary fat intake and heart disease were ambiguous at best. Something to keep in mind when judging whether two events that occur at the same time – association does not equal causation, I repeat association IS NOT causation.
Furthermore our industrialised cultures are without a doubt on a path different from a one leading to wellbeing and health. Once known as Syndrome X, now referred to as Metabolic syndrome consisting of abdominal (central) obesity, elevated blood pressure, elevated fasting plasma glucose, dislypidemia (high serum triglycerides, and low high-density lipoprotein (HDL)) levels, is on the rise, with prevalence going for 30% from populations, with Type 2 diabetes and heart disease topping the chart for chronic diseases and cause of death respectively. Gerald Raven sometimes called as the father the term “insulin resistance” was among the pioneers that narrowed down the cause of all of the above conditions as excess dietary carbohydrates, particularly the highly refined ones (see the first paragraphs in my post about Sugar.
Therefore there are lessons to be learned from both our forefathers as well as some of the ‘primitive’ cultures. George Catlin surrounded by the Buffalo hunting plains indians, Frederick Schwatka and Vihjalmur Stefansson among the inuit and John Orr and J.L. Gilks together with the Masai indians in Africa all discovered that although isolated from each other, all of those hunting and herding peoples shared their esteem for fat, yes that is right of fat.
The cynics might say that this is probably the main reason why those civilizations remained primitive. The answer as usual is: “Not really because it’s more complicated than that.”
It’s insane to say that ancient foods cause modern disease.
Vihjlamur Stefansson and his experience with the high fat Inuit diet and Orr and Gilks studies of the Masai coincided with discoveries of vitamins in the 1915-1925 period when Scientific nutrition really gained traction. Scientists started telling people what to eat and labeled the cultural wisdom about food of many generations as outdated. Fruits and vegetables were needed in order to prevent conditions such as scurvy and beriberi. Unfortunately cultures didn’t know why what they had been eating for generations worked, it just did, therefore such unsubstantiated knowledge was “not good.” In Victorian England right up to the 1860s when food was abundant and processed food was not available, working class people lived as long as we do today in the 21st century, mind you a good reason why modern people live as long as they do is due to medications that were non existent in the 19th century.
George Calin’s experiences with the Plains indians in the 1970 as well as Dr. Atkin’s, avoiding sugar, starches, grains and carbohydrates coincided with the mainstream consensus that crystallised in the “healthy” food pyramid stating that 60% of our daily calories should come from, grains, cereals, rice and pasta. Specifically Dr. Atkins was a pioneer in employing glucose tolerance tests to screen for insulin resistance in his patients, it is sad that he is most frequently referred to as a “quack” out to make money, while there was a solid scientific basis on his diets as well as historical evidence deeply ingrained in cultures, not to mention he helped millions to get healthy, lose weight and KEEP IT OFF for life. In addition having a massive food industry geared towards low-fat products has a huge influence on scientists and dietary policy makers.
You are probably eager to see more concrete details on what fat to eat and avoid and I assure you that is coming, however, the point I am trying to make here is that there are more than one side of every story and while the low-fat advocates have been very vocal for the last 30-40 years, it is undeniable that although complex biochemically Metabolic syndrome has a single cause – dietary carbohydrates or most specifically the huge insulin release that they cause. Insulin is the energy storage hormone that converts carbohydrates into fat and as such prevents the body from utilising the stored energy. Therefore the logical question is:
Why do we store fat if we don’t need it anymore in this time of plenty?
Fat and the Human Body
Two and a half million years ago food was scarce. The human body is uniquely adapted to thrive, not just survive while fasting by utilizing stored fat by breaking it down into small ketone bodies going into a state of (nutirtional) ketosis (occuring when dietary carbohydrate is below 50g/day). This is the environment we are designed to be in most of the time and feel good about it; with ketones in the 0.5mM to 5mM concentration. think of it in terms of car – you cannot run diesel in a gasoline powered car without doing some damage to the engine, it’s just not designed to work that way.
A sidenote here that must be made: ketosis, even in university textbooks or diabetic patient material, is sometimes interchangeably used with the term ketoacidosis a state when in the complete absence of insulin (Type 1 diabetes) body fat gets broken down very fast (remember no storage insulin signal) so that the blood ketone concentration goes very high (10+mM) with a notable acidic pH balance and you go into a diabetic coma. If you have even a couple of beta cells in your pancreas to make some insulin you will never enter ketoacidosis.
However, the one thing that shuts the ketosis program down right away is insulin even at small concentrations. What causes an insulin response – dietary carbohydrates, particularly highly refined ones. As mentioned before, we don’t have an essential need for carbohydrates, there is not a single disease caused by carbohydrate deficiency. We can make glucose from other sources/pathways when needed quite efficiently. However, carbohydrate intolerance exists, once called Symptom X, now known as Metabolic Syndrome and Type II diabetes. Remember that we all in a continuum between carbohydrate tolerance and intolerance. The more carbohydrate tolerant of you can get away with it for the most part, however, the intolerant ones are constantly struggling with weight gain and cravings. Even so the tolerance range is roughly 50-200g of carbohydrates/day and yet more than half of our energy comes from grains, rice and pasta. The results are not surprising with obesity rates in the 30%, predicted to reach 50% by 2030, with Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome trailing close behind. We are running a metabolic program not ideally suitable for us that is making people fat and sick.
What about the brain? Our most energy hungry organ preferably utilizes ketones, rather than glucose when available. In simple terms how would our ancestors been able to make rational decisions in the face of adversity (predators, etc) when in a fasting state if they relied on scarce glucose? Furthermore the ancient Greeks already knew what the Mayo clinic ketogenic diet in 1920s rediscovered – ketogenic diets prevents seizures in epileptic patients, something used to this day.
What about athletic performance? After a period of 2-4 weeks of keto adaptation (highlighted for emphasis), performance does not suffer and is even slightly improved in trained cyclists.
But fat metabolism is too slow if you want to go fast!!! Like anything it needs to be trained and once fat/keto adapted high performance is possible (Mark Allen, Paula Newby-Fraser). African hunters chase antelopes for hours without stopping for food or water. I am aware of the research (some of the studies can be found here, here and here) mentioning glucose and glycogen depletion that started it all, however, the fact that glucose depletion and fatigue occurred at the same time does NOT imply causal relationship. The rest is history…with a whole industry behind the sports carbohydrate drinks/gels/bars. Not surprisingly majority of the”research,” pro sports and advertising is sponsored by the same companies to promote their products. I am repeating myself, however, once insulin gets thrown in the picture, fat burning cannot occur.
Ever hit the wall or bonked? A study by one of the big names in ketosis research that would be difficult to reproduce now due to ethical concerns, used subjects that were starved for 4 weeks (ketone concentration in the 6mM range). Their blood glucose levels were hovering in the healthy 70mg/dL range. When the researchers administered insulin, the glucose plummeted to 25mg/dL, or think of your worst bonking moment and that times 100, yet the subjects were fine because they had sufficient ketones that their bodies could use for energy.
Therefore if you restrict carbohydrates to below 50g/day you can enter nutritional ketosis in 2-4 weeks. What is there left to eat? Proteins and fat remain in the ring together with vegetables and fruits. Protein is not a preferred fuel source, otherwise we would be readily digesting our muscles, as well as eating that much protein (200+g/day) is highly impractical. That leaves fat as the clear choice.
But, but , but fats are bad for you and cause disease and clog your arteries….If you have gotten this far you are at least slightly curious what fats do in the human body. Now we come back to the aboriginal tribes and our forefathers who literally lived off the fat of the land.
The Fat of the Land – Not All Fats are Created Equal
The plains indians hunted the autumn buffalo that had fattened from the summer grazing. The fat was used together with dried meat to make pemmican that could be carried and stored over the winter.
The inuit similarly hunted the autumn caribou and the dropping temperatures allowed fat and meat to be preserved. The tribes along the Pacific Coast held the tiny oolichan fish in high regards; the fat grease was extracted and stored in cedar boxes. To illustrate among many of the photographs of the era, people were quite lean and heart disease free, even though they consumed most of their energy from fat.
All of the fat praised by those cultures was solid at normal temperatures and did not go rancid over time. Why?
Saturated vs Unsaturated
Fats or fatty acids (FAs) are made of carboxylic (COOH) ‘head’ followed by a carbon chain. Each carbon in the “tail” if can accept four connections or bonds – when bound to another carbon, the remaining two/three are bound to hydrogen. When all spots are taken the fat is said to be “saturated” with hydrogen. When some carbons in the tail are bound with double bond to each other, the fat is “unsaturated.” Double bonds are more reactive and as such are susceptible to being damaged by oxygen and fats go rancid quicker. Furthermore a double bond causes a “kink” so fatty acids cannot be packed so close to each other and are liquid at room temperature. Rancification causes the release of aldehydes and ketones and happens inside our bodies as well in response to reactive oxygen species+heat. Aldehydes crosslink proteins, hence why formaldehyde is used for tissue preservation; all in all it’s bad for us and a rancid fat causes inflammation as our immune system rapidly sweeps up the damage (oxidation). Ketones are aromatic – hence in some cases selected rancidification results in aged cheeses. Though I digressed a bit – saturated fats are stable and not easily rancid, therefore are better for our bodies. Whaaaat?!!!? Yes. Most fat of animal sources is predominantly saturated.
No fat is entirely composed of either saturated or unsaturated, rather than a mixture of FAs that vary based on:
- The length of the carbon “tail” (short 2-4, medium 6-12 and long chain 14+) and
- The number of double bonds present. Single double bond – MONOunsaturated, more than one – POLYunsaturated
Fat is stored in the body as a triglyceride – a backbone with 3 fatty acids attached to it.
Short FAs such as acetic acid (2 carbons), lactic acid (3 carbons)re as found in yoghurt, cheese, and some fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut are readily oxidized, burned for energy
Medium FAs as found in butter, cream, milk and palm oil either end up in the cellular powerplants mitochondria where if they can be burned for immediate use; they are either utilized or any excess gets send to the liver to be converted to ketones that our brains love to use.
Long chain FAs require a transporter to enter the mitochnodria and as such are not the first choice when it comes to burning for energy and as such they can be either oxidized or stored. The longer the fatty acid the most likely it would be shelved for later.
Omega 3, Omega 6 and YOU
What the omega nomenclature means in terms of FAs is that there is a double bond present on the third (Omega 3) carbon from the omega (right side) or the sixth one (Omega 6) etc.
Why is that important?
Our bodies can only produce saturated and MONOunsaturated fatty acids, while we require POLYunsturated ones for making hormone-like substances (eicosnaoids), to control inflammation and immunity/disease prevention as well as messengers in our nervous system; the brain is 70% fat by composition. The fats we can’t assemble are essential ones – Omega-3 and Omega-6, we need to obtain them from our diet. Even so they represent only 3% of our total calories. As noted above having many double bonds (polyunsaturated) makes the fats highly unstable and you don’t want much of oxidized fat going around your organs/circulation. Therefore there can be too much of a good thing as described below.
The A, B, Cs Inside You
For human processes fats can be divided in 3 groups. Each groups makes it’s own hormone-like substance – eicosanoids which leads to other processes.
- Group A fats are found in vegetable oils, they are Omega-6 and contain linoleic acid (LA). Group A fats make Group 1 eicosanoids which are anti-inflammatory. Group A fats can be readily converted (ie when in excess) to Group B.
- Group B fats are found in butter, cream, cheese and in in meats; Group B fats are saturated and contain the essential Omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA). Group 2 eicosanoids are responsible for inflammation and chronic pain. Inflammation is needed as our first line response to disease and injury, however, currently by a huge margin most of our B fats are coming due to excess consumption of vegetable(seed) oils from Group A, rather than animal fat. Chronic inflammation and pain is at pandemic levels due to that fact (more in the next paragraph)
- Group C or Omega-3 fats are found in wild coldwater fish and and contain alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). Group 3 eicosanoids are anti-inflammatory.
An overall balance between A, B, and C fats is required for optimal human health, unfortunately we predominantly eat huge amounts of Omega-6 because….
When Your Demons Come Back to Haunt You
When saturated fat was labeled bad, based on
And this is where hell broke lose….continued in Part 5: Size Matters – Cholesterol.
Take Away Points
Fats, particularly saturated ones, were labeled as the cause of heart disease in the beginning of the 20th century. Majority of the science was based on observational studies without a clear correlation and factors such as tobacco smoking did not appear to be taken into account. Cultural traditions about food, were replaced by the advance of science and food wisdom that had sustained generations before that was forgotten. In the face of modernization, aboriginal hunter gatherer cultures like the Inuit, Plains Indians still existed. Anthropologists were amazed at both the well-being and the esteem that these peoples held for fat.
The human body is uniquely adapted to utilising fat for energy, a trait that allowed us to survive periods of fasting and starvation. That fat burning is inhibited by insulin, released in response to refined dietary carbohydrates which is what the fat has been mostly replaced in our modern diets in the search of health. While we don’t have essential need for carbohydrates we all possess an inherited degree of intolerance. As such there is a condition caused by chronically exceeding it – Metabolic syndrome which includes obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
In addition not all fats are created equal, with the ones solid at room temperature, being more stable to goign rancid making them perfect for cooking and human use. While we do have a rather small inbuilt need for some of the more unstable polyunsaturated fatty acids, the global shift towards using vegetable (seed) oils have made us consume a very high amount of pro inflammatory fats, overloading our natural inflammation causing pathways.
Maybe it is time to rethink the low fat paradigm and go back to living off the “Fat of the Land.”
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Cycling Nutrition Series
- Part 1: Fast Furious and Deadly – Carbohydrates
- Part 2: Sweet Little Lies – Sugar
- Part 3: Not by Bread Alone – Wheat, Pasta and Gluten
- Part 4: The Fat of The Land – Fats
- Part 5: Size Does Matter – Cholesterol
- Part 6: You Think You Know what Processed Food Is?
- Part 7: Putting it all Together: Recipes for Successful Cycling
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living – Dr. Stephen Phinney and Prof. Jeff Volek.
Good Calories, Bad Calories – Gary Taubes
Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution- Robert C. Atkins MD
Big Fat Lies – David Gillespie
And of course for even more information check the ever-increasing Reading List.
I welcome comments, however, before asking a question and for disclaimers please visit the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page.