Flax And Fish Oil
[ Q ] I've got a question about fats. I keep hearing your recommendations for fish oils because they provide something called DHA and EPA: I have always used flax instead because I heard that the flax is converted to these anyway.
But recently I heard about the new study on Flax seed oil that says it'll actually reduce Testosterone levels. So what's the deal? Should I give up the flax oil and start on the fish?
[ A ] My response to your question could easily take up this entire column. So instead of overloading you with all the scientific details, I'll touch on only the key points.
First, yes, I am a big proponent of supplementing with fish oils that are high in DHA and EPA: These omega-3 fatty acids have fast been emerging on the supplement and research scenes due to the many benefits they provide.
Most relevant to athletes, DHA and EPA can lead to losses of body fat; a nutrient partitioning effect shifted toward growth of lean tissues and loss of fat tissues; and an increased insulin sensitivity.
In addition, by increasing the omega 3's in the standard diet and subsequently decreasing omega 6's and saturated fatty acids, you'll see even more benefits. My recommendations center around consuming 6-10 g combined of EPA and DHA per day from both food and supplemental sources.
Salmon is my favorite fish since it contains a high proportion of omega 3's and a good amount of DHA and EPA: The following table gives you the fatty acid profile of a can of sockeye salmon.
One, Eight-ounce Can of Salmon
Saturated Fat - 3 g
Monounsaturated Fat - 6 g
Polyunsaturated Fat - 3 g
Omega 3 - 2.5 g
EPA/DHA - 2.0 g
Omega 6 - 0.5 g
But what about flax oil? While the profile of flax is good for its omega 3 content and its ratio of 3's to 6's, there's no DHA/EPA in flax. Check it out:
One Tablespoon of Flax
Saturated Fat - 1.5 g
Monounsaturated Fat - 2.5 g
Polyunsaturated Fat - 9.5 g
Omega 3 - 7.5 g
EPA/DHA - 0.0 g
Omega 6 - 2.0 g
Since we know that the main omega 3 fatty acids in flax (linolenic acid) can be converted to DHA/EPA in the body, it's reasonable to suggest using flax oil to ensure some EPA/DHA production.
The only problem is that the conversion rate of linolenic acid to DHA/EPA is pretty low. Theoretical estimates have been made at about a 25% to 35% conversion.
In a perfect world, you'd get about a 30% conversion, so each tablespoon of flax oil would provide about 2.5g of EPA/DHA: The only problem is that this conversion rate is dependent on a number of enzymes that vary from person to person and even from day to day.
So it's really hard to estimate exactly how much DHA/EPA you'll get from using flax oil. Still, I believe that flax oil is a great source of omega 3 fatty acids when used in conjunction with salmon, or some other fish oil and/or concentrated DHA/EPA supplementation.
Once you factor in your flax oil and salmon consumption and you still need more EPA/DHA, you can purchase a concentrated EPA/DHA supplement. Some of the best and most convenient contain 0.5 - 1 g of DHA/EPA per capsule. With all of these options, it should be easy to get your DHA/EPA each day.
However, your letter indicated that you were concerned about flax oil in particular. So let's talk about the 'nads and Testosterone production.
The study you mentioned was published this year by a urology research team at Duke university (Urology 2001 Jul;58(1):47-52). What the researchers did was take 25 men with prostate cancer and lower the amount of fat in their diets to about 20 percent (or less) of total calories.
In addition, they added 30 g of flaxseeds to the diet, not flaxseed oil!
What the researchers found was that at the end of about 1 month, total cholesterol was lowered (from 200 mg/dl to about 170 mg/dl) as was total Testosterone (from 420n g/dl to 360 ng/dl) and the free androgen index (from 36% to 29%). In addition, some markers of prostate biology were altered.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, the decreases in Testosterone were small, especially when you consider that the range of normal Testosterone values span from 300 ng/dl to 1100 ng/dl.
A decrease of 60 points in an 800-point spread between 300 and 1100 ng/dl isn't very big. While not ideal, I doubt these decreases in Testosterone would have any impact on their manhood, if you know what I mean.
In addition, low-fat diets themselves are often associated with decreases in Testosterone levels, so I propose that the lowering of fat in the diet may have caused this small drop rather than the addition of flaxseeds.
In fact, several other studies have helped validate this speculation (Food Chem Toxicol 2000 Apr;38(4):325-34, J Toxicol Environ Health A 1999 Apr 23;56(8):555-70, Am J Clin Nutr 1999 Mar;69(3):395-402).
Although the first two studies mentioned were done in rats, the first of the two showed that in male rats exposed to flaxseed during gestation and weaning, Testosterone and LH levels were increased.
In addition, the second study showed that rats fed a diet high in flaxseed raised Testosterone levels. And finally, in the last study, 29 humans were given a diet containing 20 g of defatted flaxseeds per day. This study showed no changes in androgen or estrogen indices.
So it's my opinion that neither flax oil nor flaxseeds will decrease your Testosterone levels. In fact, supplementing your diet with these two products may actually increase your Testosterone production. And if T doesn't even change one bit, you still have the benefits of flax oil discussed above.
Adding flax seeds to the diet increases dietary fiber and the lignan content of the flaxseeds may be active in the prevention of cancer, antagonism of estrogen receptors, antioxidant protection, and increasing good blood fats (HDL) while decreasing bad blood fats (LDL and cholesterol).
Another common question I get is "How much flax oil should I take?" The answer to that all depends on how much fat you want in your diet. If you're trying to get bigger and eat a 30% fat diet, then you probably want 10-15% of your calories to come from oils like flax and fish oil.
So at 3000 calories per day, 1000 calories should come from fat. Between 300-450 of those calories should come from polyunsaturates. That translates into about 30-50 percent of fat from salmon, flax oil, and flax seeds per day. And don't forget to add up your DHA/EPA and supplement with them as necessary to reach 6-10g per day.
The Don't Diet Plan
[ Q ] I've been using Massive Eating with great success when bulking up, but now I want to lose the fat I've gained. Do you have any new tricks for shedding the small amount of fat I gained from Massive Eating?
[ A ] I'm really glad that my Massive Eating suggestions have worked well for you. And you're not the only one!
The responses have been overwhelmingly positive as people are increasing body weight and lean mass at alarming rates while keeping fat gain to a minimum.
However, fat is nearly always gained when "going anabolic," and after all that muscle is packed on, you need to diet down a bit so that you can appreciate the new beef.
When dieting, there are traditionally two mindsets. The first is to try to drop as much fat as possible in the shortest amount of time. Following this type of strategy usually entails prescribing hellish 6-8 week periods of super restrictive dieting.
During these periods, dieters will try to maintain as much muscle as possible while following these very low calorie diets (i.e. ketogenic diets, protein-sparing modified fasts (Fat Fast), etc.).
However, the drawbacks to these diets are obvious to anyone who's ever followed one. They are restrictive, they lead to low energy levels, they lead to losses in strength, and they really walk the fine line between keeping your hard-earned muscle and watching it disappear.
While I believe that you aren't going to lose a ton of muscle in 6-8 weeks of dieting (unless you are already very lean or your dieting consists of prison camp fare), a small amount can be lost.
That loss, coupled with the pain and suffering, just doesn't seem worth it to me, but I'm the type of guy who can stay disciplined enough to stay pretty lean year-round so that my "diets" don't have to be too extreme.
The other approach to dieting, one I like much better, is to follow a life-style approach.
While this approach may increase the time it takes to get lean, it is far healthier, far less restrictive, and far better for maintaining that lean body.
When transitioning from a Massive Eating program to a eating plan that helps you shed the extra fat weight, I recommend following the second approach. My Don't Diet plan is one way to do this.
First of all, I want you to understand that the Don't Diet plan isn't really all that different from Massive Eating in the first place. The rules for meal combinations are the same as those recommended in the Massive Eating articles.
The only differences lie in the fact that overall calorie intake will be lower and the fact that food choices are a bit more important. So let's lay out a Don't Diet plan.
To begin, you first determine calorie needs as specified in my Massive Eating article. However, rather than adding the cost of exercise training into the equation, you should stop calculating when you get to maintenance level. I'll use the calculations I showed you in the Massive Eating article to demonstrate how to do this:
- Multiply lean body mass in kg (92kg for me) by 22.
- Next add 500 to this number and this gives the resting metabolic rate.
- Next, multiply this number above by an activity factor (somewhere between 1.2-2.1). This gives the resting metabolic rate plus activity factor number.
- Then take the resting metabolic rate and multiply this by 0.10 or 0.15.
- Add this last number to the number you got when you multiplied your resting metabolic rate by your activity factor in order to determine daily maintenance calorie level.
In recalculating my maintenance calorie level (using the calculations presented in the Massive Eating article), at 200 lbs and 5% fat, I need 4160 calories per day to maintain weight.
With Massive Eating, I then recommended adding in the cost of exercise (about 900-1000 calories) and then eating that amount of calories every day. It turned out that I needed close to 5100 calories per day for massive eating.
However, with the Don't Diet approach, you should stop before that last step. Instead of adding in exercise expenditure, leave it out. Then get the maintenance number (4160) and take 85% of this number (4160 multiplied by 0.85).
This gives us about 3500 calories. This would be what I would need to be eating every day on the Don't Diet plan.
So if my maintenance is 4100 and I'm eating 3500, this gives me a 600-calorie deficit on my non-workout days. In addition, on my workout days, my deficit would be even higher due to the calories I'll burn in the gym.
Sometimes when I hit a big cardio and weight workout, this deficit can reach up to 900-1000 calories for me, so on hard-core training days I may be in a calorie deficit of 1500 calories. Assuming I work out 4 days per week, I can accumulate a calculated calorie deficit of about 7800 calories in one week's time.
Since a pound of fat is approximately equal to 3500 calories, does that mean that I can drop 2.5lbs per week on this diet?
No! The reason for this is the fact that once a diet begins and calories go down, almost every metabolic predictive equation used to determine metabolism goes out the window. You see, most of the studies were done on well-fed individuals, not dieters.
Let me illustrate this another way. When I was eating a lot of food with massive eating, my maintenance level was 4100. However, when restricting my calories for a diet, my daily calorie needs decrease through 4 mechanisms. First, basal metabolism decreases.
Secondly, normal daily activity levels tend to decline because dieters simply don't have the energy to do all the things they did when eating massively. Thirdly, exercise calorie burning and post exercise calorie-burning goes down due to small to moderate drops in gym intensity. Lastly, the thermic effect of food decreases.
With this decrease in metabolism, you probably really need fewer calories than calculated (4100) to sustain normal daily activity.
But since you'll be eating only 3500 calories, in addition to expending calories training that you won't make up by eating more, you'll accumulate enough of a calorie deficit to continue the fat loss at a steady rate.
One important message here that I can't stress enough is that you MUST continually recalculate your numbers as you lose weight. Far too many dieters write up a diet based on their current body weight and body fat and decide that they'll stick to it (no matter what) for an arbitrary amount of weeks.
Well, guess what? This inflexibility has its cost.
After 6 weeks into the program, they'll probably have lost 6-10 lbs. As such, they'll actually have much lower calorie needs at this time. No wonder fat loss slows down in most dieters!
If they haven't adjusted their calories after 6 weeks of dieting, what was once a hypocaloric diet could now be an isocaloric or hypercaloric diet! So continually recalculate as you lose weight and the rate of loss should be steady.
So now that you know how many calories you should be eating, let's talk about the actual food and food combos. First of all, the recommendations for eating meals consisting of only protein plus fat meals or protein plus carb meals still stand.
You should be especially good at this if you've been following Massive Eating. However at this time I would like to suggest two ways to set up your meals: The Stagger and The Taper.
Assuming that you're eating 6 meals per day, the Stagger method would dictate that you alternate fat plus protein meals with protein plus carb meals throughout the day so that you get 3 of each.
On the other hand, the Taper method would require that you eat the first half of your meals (3 meals) as protein plus carbs, and the last half of your meals (3 meals) as protein plus fat. In my experience, The Taper is the ideal fat loss plan. The Stagger is also pretty good, but the losses in fat are generally slower.
Never the less, if you take the calories up a bit on the Stagger, it's quite useful as a solid body weight maintenance eating plan. Eating every 3 hours or so is optimal when on these programs. However, if some of your meals are rapidly digested (like Biotest Surge, protein shakes, etc.) you can eat 2 hours afterwards.
As far as foods, the guidelines are to stick with only low glycemic carbs (except for the post workout period where you should slam something like Biotest Surge). Acceptable carbs are fruits, vegetables, beans, oatmeal, and a small amount of whole grain bread.
As far as protein, stick to the slower digesting proteins like milk protein blends that contain both whey and casein and whole food proteins. For fat sources, a small amount of saturated fat should be eaten while the bulk of your diet should contain polyunsaturated fats (fish oil, flax oil, flax seeds) and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, nuts).
Below is an example of a 3400-3500 calorie Don't Diet program using the Taper idea:
8 oz. cottage cheese
1 scoop of Advanced Protein
1 cup of oatmeal (before cooked)
1/2 cup of oatmeal (before cooked)
2 scoops of Advanced Protein
1 piece of flax bread
1 piece of fat free cheese
Meal #3 (post workout)
3 scoops of Biotest Surge
7 egg whites
2 whole eggs
1/2 cup vegetables
2 slices of fat free cheese
2 teaspoons of flax oil
1 can of tuna fish
1 oz mixed nuts
2 teaspoons flax oil
1 can of sockeye salmon (3 times per week, eat 8 oz extra lean beef instead, but take a few concentrated EPA/DHA capsules with this meal when you don't eat fish)
1 oz mixed nuts
That's it. That's all you need to know to shed that little layer of Massive Eating body fat. Now get busy and let's see what all that new muscle really looks like.
When To Bulk Up And When To Cut Down
[ Q ] One big debate in bodybuilding is whether one should bulk up first and then cut down, or whether one should cut down first and then bulk up? Which do you think is better?
[ A ] Most popular opinions on this topic suggest that the best way to get the ideal physique (big AND ripped) is to bulk up first and then try to diet down.
The proponents of this strategy suggest that in bulking up, you will be adding muscle mass. They further state that this muscle mass will be helpful, metabolically speaking, when you go to diet down.
Since muscle is the engine that burns fat, doesn't it make sense that with a bigger engine you will burn more fuel and will get leaner much easier?
Well, although it makes sense intuitively, I'd like to present some data and an argument that may lead you to rethink this strategy. I pretty much want to propose that the simplistic idea of bulking up before cutting down is a relatively useless one.
It doesn't take into account how much muscle and fat you have already. I mean, what if you're 15-20% body fat but only weigh 160 at a height of 6 ft.? This is a relatively low ratio of lean body mass to fat mass.
So should you still "bulk up" to gain some muscle and metabolic power before you try to get lean? The answer to this question and a few more will be addressed below.
Before I talk about this issue though, I want to clearly state that I doubt there ever will be a legitimate research study examining this question in healthy male and female weightlifters.
I just can't picture the National Institutes of Health (NIH) throwing big research dollars at a project designed to figure out how to make already muscular men and women bigger and more ripped. They tend to fund studies that aim at curing cancer and heart disease and stuff like that.
So this question will probably never be answered scientifically. But using some other literature, we can come to some pretty cool conclusions.
The data I'm about to present isn't really new. However, for some reason this information hasn't trickled down into the bodybuilding community as of yet. And I'm not sure as to why.
I guess it's probably due to the dogmatic approach of most weight lifters who are guided by tradition rather than objective science. Geez, I'm starting to sound like the late Mike Mentzer, aren't I?
Anyway, while ignored in weight lifting, researchers have known for years that one of the biggest determinants of your muscle loss to fat loss ratio (when dieting) and your muscle gain to fat gain ratio (when bulking up) is your initial level of body fatness.
Basically the amount of body fat that you have (percentage and total pounds of fat) will be a major determinant of how your body responds to over eating or under eating.
Several studies have been done to explore this phenomenon and G.B. Forbes has compiled the results of these investigations into one review article (Ann N Y Acad Sci 2000 May;904:359-65). For organizational purposes, I've split the results up into a weight loss experiment section and a weight gain experiment section.
Weight Loss Experiments
In several experiments, subjects were underfed to varying degrees in order to produce weight loss. Here are the results of these experiments Subjects were given the following three hypocaloric diets to produce weight loss:
Diet #1 - 0-450 kcal/day
Diet #2 - 500-1000 kcal/day
Diet #3 - 1000+ kcal/day
Let's look at the numbers:
|Initial Body Fat||Caloric Intake||Lean Mass Lost
(% of Weight Lost)
(% of Weight Lost)
I hope it's clear from this table that eating a diet too few in calories causes a substantial LBM (lean body mass) loss, while eating a higher calorie (but still hypocaloric diet) preserves more lean mass.
In addition, it's especially interesting to note that the fatter subjects on both the higher calorie and the lower calorie diets have a remarkable shift in the muscle loss to fat loss ratio toward more fat loss and less muscle loss. This shift is especially striking in comparison to what happens when their leaner counterparts diet.
Several other studies show that this phenomenon is not exclusive to humans. It is also present in fasting and hibernating mammals:
|Initial Body Fat||Caloric Intake||Lean Mass (% of Weight Lost)||Lost Fat Lost (% of Weight Lost)|
Since all of the above studies were done in non-exercise trained humans and mammals, further studies were done to determine the effects exercise on weight loss. If exercise is used in place of, or in addition to calorie restriction or fasting, more lean body mass is preserved than if there was no exercise.
However the same trends are evident in that the fatter individuals preserve more lean mass while the leaner individuals lose more lean mass.
Now that you've seen these data, I think that the take-home message for dieting should be as follows.
- Always use exercise in conjunction with diet to promote loss of fat and preservation of lean mass.
- Always consider your initial body fat before deciding how severe your diet should be.
- When starting a diet with a high level of body fat, your diet can be more restrictive and/or severe since you will lose the fat preferentially.
- As you diet and get leaner, you should adjust your calorie deficit so that it is actually smaller. So if you start a diet eating 1000 calories below maintenance, as you get leaner, your daily deficit should decrease to 500 calories per day.
- If you don't decrease your calorie deficit as you lose fat, you will begin to lose an unacceptable amount of lean mass.
Weight Gain Experiments
In several experiments, subjects were overfed to varying degrees in order to produce weight gain. Here are the results of these experiments, which have shown that when overfed, initial body fat level is also important:
|Initial Body Fat||Caloric Intake||Lean Mass Gained (% of Weight Gained)||Fat Gained (% of Weight Gained)|
These striking differences in the ratio of LBM gained to fat gained illustrate the need to start an overeating phase while lean. In the leanest subjects, there was a 2 1/3 pound muscle gain for every 1 pound of fat gained. However, for the fatter subjects, 4 pounds of fat were gained for every 1 pound of muscle gained.
Since these subjects were not exercise trained, adding exercise would have probably lead to a shift toward more muscle gain with less fat gain. Exercise has a nutrient partitioning effect, shuttling nutrients preferentially toward the lean tissues.
As such, you'd expect more lean gain during exercise training and overfeeding. However, either way, the trends would probably remain and fatter subjects would gain more fat during overfeeding than lean individuals.
One of the coolest things about this article is that a predicative equation was generated that allows us to calculate the amount of muscle and the amount of fat that we can expect to gain, based on our initial fat weight. Check it out.
Lean Mass Gain / Weight Gain = 10.4 / (10.4 + initial fat weight (kg) )
In addition, this very same equation is valid when dieting for the prediction of muscle loss and fat loss.
Lean Mass Loss / Weight Loss = 10.4 / (10.4 + initial fat weight (kg) )
While not flawless, these equations are handy tools for estimating how much LBM and fat you may gain or lose when underfeeding or overfeeding. In addition, they allow us to decide whether it's a good time to try to bulk up or not.
Therefore, for someone who is 92 kg (200 lbs) and 5% body fat (4.6kg fat), about 70% of the weight gained during an overfeeding phase can be expected to be lean body mass (10.4 divided by 10.4 plus 4.6 is equal to 0.70), while the remaining 30% is expected to be fat weight.
However in someone who is 92kg and 10% body fat (9.2kg of fat), 53% of weight gained will be lean body mass.
Keep in mind that the opposite is also true. If you're 92 kg (200 lbs) and 5% body fat (4.6% fat), about 70% of the weight lost during a dieting phase can be expected to be lean body mass.
So perhaps a good idea is to only overfeed when relatively lean and to diet hard only when over fat. If you're 200 lbs and around 10-15% body fat, these equations predict that about half the weight you gain will be fat and half will be muscle.
If you try to gain when fatter than 15%, much of the weight you gain will be fat mass.
I must offer a word of caution, though. Remember that these equations were mostly generated using diet alone. The addition of weight training and cardio would have changed things up a bit. In addition, these numbers may be different if supplements are used.
Some supplements change nutrient partitioning parameters (alpha-lipoic acid, fish oils, presumably Methoxy-7, etc); others preserve lean body mass when dieting (ephedrine, caffeine, etc); and others increase protein synthesis (anabolic steroids and androgens). Any of these factors can change the exact ratios.
However, as I said before, the basic principles remain. When dieting, the leaner you get, the less your calorie deficit should be or else you'll lose more LBM than necessary. And, when bulking up, your best bet is to start lean, as most of the weight you gain will be LBM.
Although this was a roundabout way of answering your question, the bottom line is that it looks like it is better to diet down first then bulk up rather than the other way around.
About The Author
John M Berardi is one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human performance and nutrition. His company, Science Link, provides unique and highly effective training, nutrition, and supplementation programs for high level athletes as well as recreational exercisers. John is a prolific author and a sought after speaker and consultant. Visit www.johnberardi.com for more information about John and his team. Also, check out his new DVD entitled No Nonsense Nutrition.
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