We've heard the term "essential fatty acids" (EFAs) and we've been told to try and incorporate fish into our diets at least three times each week. We also know to keep our saturated fat to a minimum. But what does this all mean? Which fats are the essential fatty acids? Why do we need them? And how much should we be taking in? Also, which fats should we avoid and what foods are these present in?
What Are EFA's?
EFAs are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that are also essential nutrients. This means that they cannot be manufactured in the body and, therefore, must be obtained through diet. They are the starting point - or the mortar and brick - for manufacturing all other fatty acids and hormone precursors necessary to support and build strong lean muscle while increasing stamina required for fitness and bodybuilding.
They are considered the "good" fat that are also key components of many other physiological processes in the body. Two EFAs have been identified, including linoleic acid, LA (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid, ALA (omega-3). Two other omega-3s, which are not considered essential because they are metabolic derivatives of ALA, are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and the non-essential metabolic derivatives of LA include gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA).
ALA and LA can be found in a variety of foods. Omega-3s are commonly found in many types of fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, shrimp, and crab) and omega-6s are mainly found in many types of vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, safflower corn, soy, and peanut), other soy foods, walnuts and leafy greens. The recommendation for omega-3s is currently 1.3 percent of dietary energy intake based on a 2000 kcal which amounts to almost 3g / day. This does not take into consideration the active lifestyle of the bodybuilder, however.
Those of us keeping dietary fats to a minimum might experiment more with quantities of EFAs depending on how much fat you allow into your diet. For example, suppose you are on a 3000 kcal program with 20 percent of your calories from fat. This results in 600 calories from fat - or 66g allocated to dietary fat primarily in the form of EFAs. That's a lot of salmon and tuna!
In these cases it is almost impossible to not consider EFA supplementation if you want to achieve optimal performance. To give an idea of how much is in the foods we eat, one 6.5 oz can of tuna fish contains approximately 0.5g of omega-3s and 3 oz of smoked salmon contains about the same. Thus, the current consumption of EFAs, primarily ALA, in the American diet is actually very low. It is also easy to assume that during cutting up phases of bodybuilding one might not be getting enough EFAs due to a low-energy diet with a reduced dietary fat content. This holds true for many women in the field, too, because of their common use of long-term, energy-restricted diets. Hence, the need for EFA supplementation has become a hot market in the sports supplement field and is a necessity for optimal results in bodybuilding and fitness.
One source of ALA that is the most abundant in omega-3s, and is also in the spotlight of "good" fats, is flax seed oil. It has the highest ratio of omega3:omega 6 than any other source as well as a high amount of fiber, lignans (phytoestrogens being researched for their anticarcinogenic qualities), vitamins, and minerals. It has the highest content of PUFAs with minimal amounts of saturated fatty acids (SFA), also known as the "bad" fat.
SFAs are the fats most abundant in butter, milk, cheese, beef, and coconut oil and happily get converted to stored bodyfat without many of the other "bells and whistles" of the PUFA family. ALA is also the precursor for other types of omega-3s including DHA and EPA, as well as hormone-like substances in the body called eicosanoids, which have a lot of benefits for the bodybuilder.
Eicosanoids include prostaglandins (naturally produced anti-inflammatory agents in the body) as well as other substances that aid in blood clotting, blood pressure, vascular dilatation, heart rate, immune response, and the production of cell membranes. It is also believed that when there is a lack of omega-3s in the diet (as we are currently seeing a prevalence of in the American diet), these processes are unable to perform optimally. Also, a lack of substrate for the production of cell membranes transpires - fat cell membranes in particular - making it difficult to release adipose from tissue. This is partially the reason why EFAs can potentially aid in fat loss. Other health benefits of EFAs supported by research include:
Increased uptake and utilization of oxygen as well as increased oxidation of stored bodyfat ~ are essential for the production of hemoglobin (substance produced in bone marrow which is responsible for the red blood cell's ability to transport oxygen to muscle tissue as well as carry carbon dioxide out of muscle tissue)
Other Benefits Of EFA's:
- Increased metabolic rate because EFA's increase energy levels
- Increased insulin sensitivity by delaying stomach emptying time; This allows the digestive system to absorb carbohydrates more slowly resulting in a decreased insulin response
- Natural blood thinner therefore decreasing platelet aggregation (clotting of red blood cells) resulting in decreased risk of vascular disease, clotting and strokes
- Decreased blood pressure due to its blood thinning abilities
- Are converted into prostaglandins (natural anti-inflammatory agent produced in the body) that help decrease inflammation and pain; reduced muscle soreness after strenuous workouts and shortened recovery time
- Increased brain function, mood and intelligence; the brain is 60 percent fat and needs omega-3s to function properly
- Improved stamina and endurance due to optimal production of hormones
- Reliable source of energy without increasing bodyfat
- Increased production of hormones, including our favorite, testosterone
- Provide soft, smooth and velvety skin
Aid in weight reduction and management by suppressing appetite and removing water from inflamed tissue due to their conversion into prostaglandins
As you can see, there's no real reason not to give flax a try. It is an excellent source of the "good" fat that we so readily hear we need. It has multiple benefits, all aiding in the bodybuilding lifestyle, as well as overall health and wellness. Flax seed oil can be incorporated into any diet by mixing into shakes, putting on salads, mixing in with your tuna fish, putting it in soup, or sprucing up any boring recipe you might be cooking in order to maximize muscle gains. Get ready to flax your muscles!
Bodybuilding Recipes Using EFA's
Tomato-Basil Flax Dressing
1/4 cup Apple Cider Vinegar
3-5 cloves garlic
3 Tbsp. fresh basil (or 1 Tbsp. dried)
1-2 Tbsp. sun-dried tomatoes
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. tamari or soy sauce
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. tarragon
1/2 tsp. maple syrup
6 drops Tabasco sauce
3/4-cup Flax Seed Oil
Yields 1 cup.
Soak sun-dried tomatoes in 1/4-cup hot water for one hour. Drain. In food processor or blender, combine vinegar, garlic, basil, sun-dried tomatoes, mustard, tamari, oregano, tarragon, maple syrup and Tabasco sauce. Blend until smooth. Just before finishing the blending, slowly add the oil in a steady continuous stream. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator to protect the EFAs in the flaxseed oil.
Click here for a printable version of the 'Tomato-Basil Flax Dressing' recipe.
1 cup cooked garbanzo beans, drained
2-4 tbsp. Flax Seed Oil
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 tbsp. chopped parsley to garnish
Blend beans in food processor. Slowly add lemon juice alternately with oil. Add seasoning and chill. Garnish with parsley. Serve as a dip for fresh vegetables or as a sandwich spread. Yields one cup.
Click here for a printable version of the 'Flax Hummus' recipe.
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