Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Fats and the Cholesterol myth!

Ok, first a great big "thanks" to all those who have read my last blog post and left kind comments - I hope you all found it interesting and eye opening!

It's great to hear that I am reaching people - that was always my hope and my intention.

I can think of a number of people that, as a direct result of my last post (and some of the videos) are now in the process of changing the way they eat and shouting about it to their friends. Fantastic! Keep spreading the word.

If you haven't read it yet - no worries, you are here now, so maybe just read my last post before dipping into this one. Also, if you haven't watched "The Big Fat Fiasco" vids (linked in the post) then please do - they are essential viewing!

So, I spoke about food groups, in general, during my last post - but I think it might be worth delving a little deeper and talking about one specific food group in our diets and one that continues to get grossly misrepresented.

Namely fats...

More specifically, saturated fats and more specifically still, cholesterol...

So here goes...

In my last post, I spoke about the different types of food we consume to fuel our bodies during work, rest, day to day activities and sports type activity.

I also called into question the validity and health benefits of the "Low fat / High Carb" diet that we have been brainwashed into believing for several decades!

We have a number of people to thank for this myth but a certain biochemist called Ancel Keys probably sits at the top of the tree.

It was his studies in the 1950's along with a great big dollop of bad science that lead to the so called "Lipid Hypothesis" which in essence was... if you eat fats, you get fat and the associated levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood will increase your risk of Atherosclerosis (ASVD) and coronary heart disease (CHD). So don't eat fats (particularly saturated fats), eat grains and vegetable oils instead.

Tom Naughton provides a great analogy in his film "Fat Head" - a brilliant and funny movie well worth a watch.

He asks that we imagine the whole of human history (over 1 million years!) compressed into 1 year. He states that, proportionally, we have only been farming and eating grains since yesterday (when we started becoming shorter and fatter) and we started consuming processed vegetable oils about 10 minutes ago (when heart disease became our number one killer).  So after examining all this human history the "experts" (Ancel Keys among them) suggested that we all start eating what?

Yup - more grains and processed vegetable oils!!

That's right, in order to protect our heath, it was suggested that we should all eat more of the foods that we hadn't eaten for 99% of all human existence!!


Sorry.. did I miss something??

Thankfully the whistle has been blown on this hypocrisy, it's bad science exposed and the general population gradually coming round to the idea that they may have been sold a pup.

But elements of this myth still remain and a biggy is Cholesterol.

We've all heard of Cholesterol and how bad for us it is. We all know how increased Cholesterol levels can increase Atherosclerosis (ASVD), Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and heart attack risk and we know that these increased levels are, by and large, due to consuming cholesterol rich foods like saturated fats and dairy right? Right?


Again we have our friend Ancel to thank for this one following his now famous study (that got him the cover of Time magazine) were he showed a "link" between high blood cholesterol levels in different countries and increased incidence of CHD.

What he actually showed was an "association" or "correlation" and, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not imply causation. In fact, as we will see later, Ancel didn't even see an association, but he "manipulated" the data to show one. 

A great example that illustrates the inherent weakness of "observational" studies is shown in the Fat Fiasco video. It sites one such study which showed that women who were taking oestrogen (HRT) were "seen" to have a lower than average incidence of CHD, leading doctors to propose that HRT was protective against CHD. However, further "clinical" trials actually showed that HRT caused a small but statistically significant increase in risk of CHD. How could this be?

Re-analysis of the data from the observational studies showed that women undertaking HRT were more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups, with better than average diet and exercise regimes and generally more likely to look after themselves. The use of HRT and decreased incidence of coronary heart disease were coincident effects of a common cause (i.e. the benefits associated with a higher socio-economic status), rather than cause and effect as had been supposed.

So back to Ancel and his bad science. Another crafty trick he pulled was to disregard any findings that didn't suit his own hypothesis, so Aboriginal Australians were dropped from the study because they had very low levels of cholesterol but some of the highest incidence of CHD in the world. Conversely the Swiss, very high cholesterol, very low incidence of CHD. So the Swiss result was not included! These are just two examples of many nations that did not follow the link Ancel was trying to prove.

Looking at all the data - it's impossible to make any connection between blood cholesterol and CHD....

Supported by equally flawed observational analysis like the Framingham Study, the myth refuses to die....

Lets try and put this one to bed...

Firstly, some stuff you maybe didn't know about cholesterol...

Cholesterol is a very important chemical in the human body.

Cholesterol is actually a "Steroid Metabolite" and is an essential structural component of every cell of our bodies - without it our cells would literally fall apart and we'd be a pretty unpleasant blob on the floor.

Cholesterol is a potent antioxidant and a "metabolic nutrient" able to heal the body from infection and repair damaged tissue.

It helps synthesise vitamin A, D and K and without it our bodies can't produce bile or bile acids needed to digest protein.

So cholesterol is a good guy ok!

Ahhh but what about "bad" cholesterol I hear you say!

Well lets get this straight....there is no such thing as "bad" cholesterol or "good" cholesterol for that matter. Just cholesterol.

So maybe some of you have heard of HDL and LDL cholesterol. I'm not surprised, we hear these terms banded about all the time on the TV by the likes of Gloria Hunniford intent on selling some magical margarine designed to stop us all from dropping dead from heart failure.

What Gloria doesn't know is that HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol aren't even cholesterol! They are proteins (High density lipoproteins and Low density lipoproteins).

Cholesterol is a waxy chemical that is not soluble in the watery environment of blood so it needs to be transported within certain protein molecules around the body. That's where HDL and LDL come in.

So why is HDL (wrongly) touted as "Good" and LDL considered "Bad"

Beats me??

LDL is simply transporting cholesterol FROM the liver TO the body tissues. If you believe (incorrectly) that cholesterol is bad, then I suppose anything that transports it TO the body tissues must also be considered "bad".

This is completely and utterly wrong! Wrong wrong-idy wrong...

LDL is simply transporting cholesterol to where it needs to be in the body. LDL is just trying to help by carrying cholesterol it to where it can mop up cellular damage, repair cells and make new ones. So stop picking on it ok!

HDL on the other hand gets all the brownie points for transporting this "poison" away from the tissues. (If I were HDL, I'd spend all my time blowing raspberries at LDL - but that's just me) So where does HDL take this cholesterol? You'd assume, because cholesterol is so "bad" and HDL is so "good", it would transport it out of the body ASAP wouldn't you.

But it doesn't

It actually takes it to the liver - where it is recycled and re-used. Our bodies know how important cholesterol is. It a complex chemical compound that the body wants to hang on to. It's far easier to recycle than it is to re-manufacture.

A great quote from Natasha Campbell McBride, MD goes something like this...

Calling HDL "good cholesterol" and LDL "bad cholesterol" is like calling an ambulance en route to an patient a "bad ambulance" and an ambulance en route to the hospital a "good ambulance".

If we are to listen to the experts, we are expected to believe that the liver is actually manufacturing, using, recycling and re-using a compound, within the body, who's sole purpose is to give us a heart attack! Seems unlikely to me...

In relation to cholesterol, there are however a few parameters that do matter.

There is good evidence to suggest that the ratio of LDL to HDL is important. Not the actual numbers that you hear quoted by some doctors and dietitians, but the ratio.

With this fact in mind, lets look at something like butter. Yup, good old tasty, natural, saturated fat, butter. Yes it raises LDL cholesterol, but it raises HDL cholesterol as well. So the effect on our bodies is, at worst completely neutral (except for all the positive nutritional effect of course). One might even be so bold as to suggest butter could reduce coronary heart disease risk. But increase?  Nope, sorry, it just doesn't. The same for all natural fats that man has chosen to leave well enough alone!

The other factor that is extremely important is molecular size.

"Small, dense, LDL" are the real bad guys. These proteins can pass more easily into the arterial wall, where they can build up to form fatty plaque deposits. Normal LDL then joins the party in an effort to mop up the rancid, oxidised proteins and a type of scar tissue forms causing an obstruction of the blood vessel and all of  the consequences thereafter. This is most probably where LDL gets its bad rep - but it's just trying to do it's job.

Conversely, large fluffy LDL (as it should be) - causes no such problems. Their particle size means everything keeps flowing as nature intended and cholesterol can go about it's business of keeping us alive!

Ok, so small, dense LDL are the bad guys - but what causes it??

Well, as with most things, you can blame your parents as there is a genetic pre-disposition to have small dense LDL. An active lifestyle will reduce the risk - good news for us athletes!

But diet has a BIG effect and hopefully you can all predict where this is going.....

It's not a diet high in saturated fats that causes small, dense LDL but......

You guessed it....

A diet which is high in refined (high GI) carbohydrates and high in Trans Fats (fats that man has meddled with)!

Is that the sound of a penny dropping?

I hope so!

So what can we learn?

Cholesterol is good - our bodies need it to function, repair and survive.

There is nothing wrong with "Natural" saturated fats. Butter, cheese, eggs, whole milk and yoghurt is all good!

A great "Universal" fat is coconut oil - I may do a mini blog post about this incredible food later - but, suffice it to say, it's now the only fat (along with butter) that I have in my house. I use it for everything from frying, baking, bread making to spreading on toast.

If you must use a vegetable oil - make it virgin olive oil.

The real bad guys are not natural saturated fats but refined, high GI carbs, hydrogenated vegetable oils and trans fats. These can cause an increase in small, dense LDL - which are the REAL precursor to Atherosclerosis and CHD - avoid them and ANY foods containing them!

So there we have it.

Myth busted...pass the butter!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Nutrition and Fat Facts!

I've been meaning to write a blog entry about a subject which I am very passionate about right now...


As athletes, I think we all realise that nutrition can play a huge role in performance. This becomes even more relevant in ultra endurance events like Ironman and beyond.

Think about it... We can all race at certain (comparatively fast) speeds over Sprint and Olympic distance, but we have to slow things right down for Ironman. In fact, I'm sure we'd all agree that none of us are going "that fast" in real terms during an Ironman and most people's Ironman marathon pace is well short of what they could maintain for a straight marathon.

So what is the limiting factor?

We've done the training. In IM we are not racing nearly as quickly as we are capable of in other distances and we've trained our bodies to cope with the various physical demands we subject our them to on race-day (impact forces, climate etc). Having met and addressed all these issues, one limiting factor remains, and its a biggy....


Ironically, it's probably the most important and maybe even the most overlooked - certainly when viewed as part of your training regime.

The rate at which you can fuel your muscles will have a greater impact on ultra endurance performance than almost anything else (assuming you've done the training!!).

We have a huge supply of energy which we carry around as fat, both beneath the skin (subcutaneous fat) and within the muscle known as "Intramuscular fat" or "Intramuscular triglycerides" (IMTG). The energy contained within these supplies is abundant - even in the leanest of athletes. "Training" your body to metabolise fat for energy at a high rate is the secret to unlocking your Ironman potential.

The master of this science was surely Mark Allen who, legend has it, could run at 6:00 per mile pace for an Ironman marathon metabolising fats alone!

A well designed nutrition plan can turn you from a "sugar junky" into a "fat burning machine" - essential for Ironman performance. At the same time it will also improve recovery, increase training quality, regulate energy levels, boost immune health and reduce disease risk (to name but a few additional benefits).

Worth saying here that by "Nutrition Plan" I mean a way of eating FOR LIFE. Every day, during training, after training as well as specific feeding during races. It's not something you "dip into" now and again. And it's certainly not something you should only give consideration to on race day. It's a commitment for life - but not one that needs to be all that difficult, or unpleasant, to achieve - quite the opposite in fact!

It's also worth saying, that the points I want to make, while perhaps directed towards "sporty people" are just as valid for the general population - maybe even more so! They just need to be tailored to suit your own energy needs.

I must also quickly mention my sources. Most of what I am now learning is a direct result of my involvement with Martin MacDonald, a Performance Nutritionist from Loughborough University. Martin has bucked the "main stream" in his search for the real facts regards performance nutrition. It is Martin's mission to debunk the many nutritional myths that are so often touted by businesses selling crack-pot diets, the media, Government Agencies and even the medical profession! Martin's results, with many high profile clients and elite sports people, speak for themselves and I consider myself very lucky to be in his care. I have gladly become one of his foot soldiers in this battle against nutritional bunkum and hypocrisy!

I can highly recommend Martin's Site. There is an abundance of information, Martin's own blog and a brilliant and active forum...

It's all cutting edge, and it's all free - Martin just wants people to know the truth!

Mac Nutrition

So, lets start with some basics....

Your body needs a certain amount of energy to function and we get this energy from the food we eat (and stuff we drink).

Even at rest, you need energy to "power" all your body's vital functions and it's organs. This includes breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, growth, repairing cells and brain function - all pretty important stuff wouldn't you say! This amount of energy an individual needs every 24 hours, just to do this, AND NOTHING ELSE, is known as their "Basal Metabolic Rate" (BMR).

You can get a good estimate for yours here...

BMR calculator

The importance of fuelling these "life sustaining systems" is the precise reason why you would be very ill advised to ever reduce your calorie intake below your BMR. Don't do it!

Your body needs this energy - it can't do without it! In simple terms, it's like expecting your car to run without fuel - it won't and nor will you without adequate calories to meet you BMR requirements.

Sadly this is precisely what is advised by so many fad diets. Shakes, soups, bars whatever - they are not's simple calorie restriction (and profiteering). Worse still, these very low calorie levels are often achieved by a dramatic reduction in dietary fat intake (as fat is very energy dense) and are inevitably sub optimal in terms of "nutritional value" to boot.

Thankfully, our bodies have evolved over millenia to cope with calorie restriction or "famine" as some might like to call it. "Beta Oxidation" is the process by which the body can utilise it's own fat stores to produce "ketones" which the body can, in turn, use for fuel. The body goes into state known as "Ketosis" - a phrase you may well have heard about in relation to "Atkins" type diets (low cal / low carb).

There is no dispute, beta oxidation happens and it can lead to people losing large amounts of weight. Unfortunately the body is designed to hold on to it's fat stores - they are very precious! The body would rather "slow things down" first before resorting to beta oxidation. So your BMR slows - you now need fewer calories at rest and some of the "less essential" bodily functions start to shut down. Hair, skin, nails, hormones, energy levels and brain function all suffer.

You know the look - I call it "low cal chic". Pale, dry, papery skin, scraggy hair, broken nails, sunken eyes and diarrhea? And that's just the less serious stuff! Is it any wonder the body starts to fall apart when it needs maybe 1500 calories "at rest" and some crash diets restrict calorie intake to ridiculous levels like 500 cals per day (and still expect you to go about your daily activities and a trip to the gym!)

Another point worth mentioning here is Insulin. We've all heard of it. It's what regulates how your body deals with carbs and fats (more on this later). In simple terms - a healthy metabolism responds to very small amounts of Insulin - in other words, it is "sensitive" to Insulin - this is a good thing. Trouble is, a lifetime of poor nutrition and eating refined carbs can completely screw your body's sensitivity to Insulin. More Insulin is required to achieve the desired carb regulating effects which in turn increases the bodies fat storing potential. Individuals who's metabolism is screwed (or sub optimal) will struggle to loose weight through simple calorie restriction alone.

This effect was illustrated by a study I read recently, where lab rats were "overfed" and their Insulin sensitivity manipulated through the administration of Insulin injections. Not unsurprisingly, these rats became very, very fat. The feeding was then stopped completely and the rats were essentially starved. The Insulin injections, however, continued. One would imagine that the rats, in the absence of calories, would "tap into" their now abundant fat stores right?


They simply starved to death and just died very, very fat rats. Big old fat stores still very much in tact.

Anyway, I've wondered off track....Where were we?

Oh if you want to loose weight (fat mass) reduce calories by all means - but nothing lower than your BMR please!

So we understand the energy needs to meet BMR - but what about everything else? We all walk about, climb stairs, (some more than others), some have physical jobs etc etc. These activities also require energy. The energy demands of these activities, combined with the energy demands to fuel your BMR create your "Non-exercise activity thermogenesis" (NEAT). This is quite simply, the energy needed for all physical activities other than "sporting like exercise".

So lets say everything is tickety boo and you simply want to "maintain" your weight, you should consume enough calories to meet your "NEAT"..... pretty neat hey?

We'll talk about training in just a moment, but for the time being, lets stay focused on your "NEAT needs".

So where should these calories come from and does it really matter? Well yes it most certainly does! These calories should come from a variety of sources. For the purpose of obtaining calories, the ones that matter are Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins. Lets just make one thing clear. It's ok to eat ALL these types of food. But what is certainly up for debate is the relative proportion of each food group.

Recommendations dating back to the 70's suggest a shift towards a carbohydrate rich (60%) low fat (20%) diet. It was suggested (and still is in more recent recommendations) that this is a far healthier way of eating and would lead to reduced levels of obesity and reduced rates of killer diseases and Type II Diabetes.

In reality, over the last 30 years, the opposite has happened. Even though a shift toward this type of diet has occurred, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are all on the up. In fact statistics took a marked swing skywards since general populations started increasing intake of (mostly refined) carbohydrates. These dietary recommendations are completely unsubstantiated. They are not based on scientific fact and there is precious little (if any) evidence to support them.

Ever wondered if it makes sense to advise a shift away from fats and proteins, both essential for life, to carbohydrates, which the body has no biological need for whatsoever? I don't want to get too bogged down in specifics, but this video (all 5 parts) is well worth a watch and should leave you in no doubt that we have been sold a pup by Governments and food advisory groups.

Big Fat Fiasco part 1
Big Fat Fiasco part 2
Big Fat Fiasco part 3
Big Fat Fiasco part 4
Big Fat Fiasco part 5

To cut to the chase - A better ratio of food groups might be in the order of 30% Carbs, 40% Fat, 30% Protein. The figure that will jump out here for most people is 40% Fat. Please understand. Eating fat does not make you fat! Eating refined (high GI) carbs does!

Starting with fat, forget what you've heard about fat (particularly saturated fat) and heart disease. Again - there is a complete lack of evidence to support the link (Watch the videos above if you haven't already). The fats to avoid like the plague are those that man has "meddled" with (Man Made Trans Fats are the worst!).

Your fat intake should come from oily fish, nuts and seeds, and dairy (whole milk please, preferably un-homogenised). For cooking, baking or spreading you can't beat Coconut Oil (Virgin) or good old fashioned butter. If you must use a vegetable oil - stick with olive. Never use vegetable oils, margarine etc.

Butter and coconut oil etc are natural "food" products with nutritional value. Margarine is not natural and it's not a food. It has no real nutritional value. It's chemically closer to a lubricant than anything you should be eating! I plan to write a blog entry dedicated to fats (my new best friend) so I'll stop there on fats for the time being.

Proteins are best derived from animal sources though high quality protein can be derived by combining non-animal sources such as nuts, beans and pulses etc. It is however much more difficult to obtain a "full" protein with all the essential amino acids from non animal protein. As for meat,quality really does make a big difference. Words to look for are "organic", "free range" and "grass fed". If the animals were fed crap while they were alive, you'll just end up sharing in their misfortune!

Finally carbs. They are not evil - well not completely any way. They have their place in a healthy diet - particularly the diet of an athlete. As mentioned previously, around 30% of your NEAT needs can be met with carbs, but try and keep the sources low GI (below 55) as these foods have less of an affect on blood sugar and therefore Insulin (the fat storage hormone!).

Brown rice, Bular Wheat, Spelt or Rye Flour, whole meal pasta (cooked aldente) quinoa are all good "staples". Fruit is also very much on the menu, but best to stick to berries, plumbs, cherries, black grapes, pears and apples.

Also think about when you eat carbs. This is key. Consume them if you are training in the next few hours or after training to re-fuel but hold the carbs if you are not training for a while. For me this is midday, when my lunch is carb free (but high protein / fat).

Finally fill up on green leafy vegetables as often as you can - every meal if possible, though I accept that Broccoli for breakfast might be pretty hard to stomach for some!

The other point where carbs enter the equation is during long training sessions and post training. Here it's just a simple case of meeting the needs of the particular session. 1g of carbs per kg body weight per hour is a good place to start, but again, there is no reason why some of these energy needs can't be met with fats.

Re-Fuelling after training should occur as soon as possible. Ideally within 20 minutes. Your carbs at this point should be HIGH GI (contrary to everything I've been saying). Combining high GI carbs like Dextrose with a high quality whey protein supplement will create an insulin "spike" (in this instance desirable) to really kick start the recovery process and maximise training adaptation. I'll go into detail on this another time! Just a word or warning - immediately post training fats are to be avoided. Particularly if you are consuming high GI carbs to spike Insulin. For that reason, biscuits, cakes and chocolate should definitely be avoided at this time!

I kinda glossed over weight loss earlier, as this was not meant to be the focus of the blog entry. But to finish, if you want to loose weight, calorie reduction is required. However, NEVER reduce intake below your BMR. Keep the proportions of food "type" the same. If anything, reduce carbs, but never fats. Then it's a simple case of aiming for something in the order of a 500 kcal energy deficit per day, to affect a healthy rate of weight loss of around 1-2lb per week.

I hope I've inspired you all to look a little bit at your diets. I'll leave you with a personal observation.

Since working with Martin, my diet and calorie intake have been optimised to regulate energy levels, fuel my training sessions and shed body fat. I'll be the first to admit, that I'm naturally a bit of a bean pole, but I did have a few stubborn kg to get down to my ideal racing weight of 70kg. (it's even harder to loose weight when you don't have much to loose!).

My carb intake has been reduced and my dietary fat intake has increased by 200% yet the 2kg of excess body fat has gone! I'm running and biking faster than ever and have yet to catch a cold this winter. Oh yes and my hair has never looked so glossy!

Happy days!