In the early days of spreading my crazy dieting gospel—more than 10 years ago—I'd get bombarded with one question over and over. It's one that people still sling my way: Do you need to eat fat to burn fat?
This, of course, makes no sense. Eating fat to burn fat? We are what we eat, so if we eat fat, we'll get fat—not lean. It's straight-up logic, right? Logic, however, only helps us find the next question to answer, because in the real world, human logic fails more times than it correctly predicts.
Take Albert Einstein, for instance. His seminal work, from general relativity to pioneering discoveries in quantum mechanics, seems totally illogical, yet it defines how the universe operates.
If you think just a little bit harder—and I recommend this practice highly to the world of bodybuilding diet gurus—then stripping fat from the diet to burn fat is stupidity at its finest.
The body is an adaptive organism that regulates hormone secretion and enzyme production based on the food we ingest. Ingest carbs all the time, and the body will build all the machinery necessary to burn carbs efficiently and store the overage just as effectively. Eat nothing but protein, and the body becomes efficient at breaking long protein chains into simpler fractions for energy-including muscle tissue.
Eat mostly fat and … well, you figure it out.
As an example of "eating-fat-to-burn-fat," let's look at medium chain triglyceride ingestion. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) reside in vast abundance in coconut fat, and are somewhat short chains of carbons (all fats are long carbon chains). The common mix is normally C8:0, C10:0 and C12:0.
The "C" represents carbon, the first number is the quantity of carbon atoms and the second number is the amount of unsaturation. These little guys are pure saturated fat, but with a surprising property: most ingested fat takes three or more hours before the body can access it for fuel or storage. MCT absorbs quickly and is available immediately.
When the body can access fat immediately, it burns it. MCT oil ingestion triggers ketone production, which is not easy to do with diet alone. Ketones help fuel the cells of the nervous system, as well as other tissue in the body, when quick energy is needed from fat molecules. MCT can also represent the idea of a negative caloric load. In Obesity Research and in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, researchers demonstrated that by simply adding MCT oil into the diet, it increased fatty acid oxidation.
Eating fat, they found, burns fat. There's more to this story, though. Many studies—especially ones quoted by governmental agencies—show that eating a diet high in fat, accompanied by a lot of carbohydrates, results in massive fat gain, not fat loss. It evidently takes more than just eating fat to burn fat. It also requires avoiding carbs.
Carbs, as we know, trigger insulin release.
Insulin does one thing incredibly well: make body tissue grow. If that tissue is muscle, awesome. Most of the time, however, it is fat. Not so awesome. Insulin does this via several mechanisms, but two of the most important are insulin's regulation of lipoprotein lipase (LPL) and hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL).
Think of LPL as equivalent to the glucose-transporter (GLUT) system—the one that carb back-loading manipulates for effective fat loss and simultaneous muscle gain. GLUT pulls sugar into fat and muscle cells to either be used as energy or to be stored as fat in fat cells and glycogen in muscle cells. LPL pulls fatty acids into fat and muscle cells for storage or energy, respectively.
Like the GLUT, LPL is also highly regulated by insulin, but only in fat cells. When insulin levels rise, LPL concentration skyrockets on fat cells, allowing them to pull in massive amounts of fat to store. It's a good thing that there's usually sugar around at the same time because the sugar that gets pulled in with the fat forms glycerine molecules—the backbone of triglycerides, the creamy filling of fat cells. Fat cells, you'll notice, are a lot like Twinkies.
Insulin has the opposite effect of LPL in muscle cells, however. When insulin levels rise, they decrease the concentration and function of LPL in the muscle. This has one direct consequence: your muscles literally can't burn any of the fat floating around in your system. They're forced to depend on carbs. Where does all that extra fat go? Yep, your miniature Twinkie storage system.
A group of scientists published a review of the metabolic downside of carbs at breakfast time in the British Journal of Nutrition. One thing they observed with people eating a breakfast full of carbs, is that muscles have a hard time burning fat for the rest around—and it skyrockets in fat cells.
OK, if we can't eat carbs, then what about an all-protein diet—or at least a heavy protein diet like all of those famous physique prep coaches use? Eating nothing but protein should be the holy grail, but it's not. Although lots of studies explore how well high-protein diets (extremely high-protein) preserve muscle tissue and accelerate fat loss, they're only examining obese populations. If you want to get ripped, this becomes a problem because there's another lipase player on the field: hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL).
HSL is responsible for getting fat back out of fat cells by breaking triglycerides down into fatty acids that can mobilize out of fat cells and get used for energy elsewhere. Insulin shuts off HSL in fat cells at the same time it shuts off LPL in muscle cells, so this all makes total sense. Why release fat from the fat cells if the muscles can't burn it? Large influxes of amino acids, however, can also cause insulin release—and some can do so independently, like the branched-chain amino acid leucine.
Aside from the insulin problems, the amino acids themselves can shut down HSL activity. Cytotechnology journal researchers recently discovered that the sulfated amino acids (methionine, cystine and cysteine) shut down HSL activity all by themselves, with no insulin needed. With all this down-regulated, inactive HSL, it becomes difficult to get fat out of fat cells.
These ultra-low-fat and ultra-low-carb diets, however, work for pre-contest prep. Where's the discrepancy? Well, why do you think people pop fat-burners like they're Pez pre-contest? Because it's necessary to make the high-protein lipolytic. Stimulating the beta-andrenergic pathway in fat cells (the same pathway adrenaline stimulates) forces HSL activity to turn back on in fat cells, increasing fat burning in muscles. This has consequences, though. Over time, the body becomes insensitive to adrenal compounds, nullifying the effect. These diets essentially have to rely on a ton of chemicals to fix the problems they create in the first place.
It's simple. When you eat predominantly fat, your body doesn't like to store it, so it burns the shit out of it. Whenever you try one of the other two routes (ultra-low-fat or ultra-low-fat and -carb), you need chemical assistance to make things work. By the way, did I mention that ultra-low-carb diets stimulate LPL activity in muscles while decreasing LPL activity and sparking HSL activity in fat cells? I guess I just did, so there you go.
This is where The Carb Nite Solution (Mark Bell's current protocol) comes into play. Eating all fat is great—it even down-regulates the enzymes necessary to turn carbs into fat—because it makes you burn fat. If you stay ultra-low-carb for too long, however, metabolism starts to drop off and fat burning slows down. Carb Nite addresses this beautifully. By eating carbs one night per week (note, one night), you can store all of your fat burning processes without gaining fat.
It's elegant in its simplicity and power.
Carb Nite (and my other creation, carb back-loading) contains long periods where we hope to utilize this information to keep the body burning fat while preserving muscle tissue, so we need to know how much fat it takes to keep the body functioning as a faster burning furnace. The general rule of thumb is to eat a diet that's 70 percent fat by calories and the rest predominantly from protein (not including pre-training nutrition). This comes down to 1 gram of fat for every gram of protein.
Normally the minimum protein intake for an athlete is one gram per pound of body weight.
To calculate this final value, take your body weight: let's say 250 pounds, then you will need 250 grams of protein. Subtract the protein content of your post workout shake (say 50 grams) and this leaves you with the total fat intake for the day for shredding fat on Carb Nite while still preserving strength and muscle mass: 200 grams of fat.
This is a solid baseline to start from, but keep in mind, you may be able to eat more, but only slightly less to maintain a loss of body fat. So, after all of this science, do you need to eat fat to burn fat? Definitely, irrefutably, yes.
Editor-at-Extra-Large sidenote: My second week on the Carb Nite diet I ate fried Buffalo wings for seven days in a row and I lost 8 pounds! Foods like bacon, wings and steak make the diet easy. www.thepowermagazine.com