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Dietary Fats, Prostaglandins and Hormones: Part III

by Casey Butt

Fats, Cholesterol and Hormonal Levels

I probably don't have to tell you that testosterone builds muscle. It's a simple relationship: more testosterone (specifically free testosterone), more muscle. What some people may not realize is that several studies have indicated that, up to a certain point, as saturated and monunsaturated fats increase in the diet so do testosterone levels in the body. That point is somewhere between 30-35% of your daily calories from fat, any higher than that won't have any additional effect, and any lower than that and your natural testosterone level is probably not as high as it could be. In addition, getting 30-35% of daily calories from fat has also been shown to significantly reduce cortisol levels and, as previously mentioned, dietary fats facilitate the entry of testosterone into muscle cells. People who for years avoided all fats in the diet unknowingly sabotaged their own natural testosterone and cortisol levels. Of course, this is fine for steroid-using bodybuilders/lifters because they swallow and inject pleny of hormones as it is. But it does illustrate how the dietary approaches of drug-using and drug-free bodybuilder/lifters is not necessarily the same. For drug-free athletes adequate dietary fat and cholesterol levels are much more crucial.

You should also be aware that LA "frees" bound estrogen, making it active. This may or may not be something that you want to achieve. If losing fat is the goal then this is definitely a no-no - estrogen is known to promote bodyfat storage. In that case you'd be wise to take more LNA-rich oils (such as flax oil) to minimize unnecessarily high LA levels. This is a common dietary strategy of bodybuilders when losing body fat for a contest. If muscle building is the goal though, it may be wise to have a certain amount of active estrogen in the blood. Estrogen increases the number of androgen receptors on cell surfaces for testosterone to attach. In the case of skeletal muscle, this creates an environment conducive to muscle growth/strengthening. Also, consider the fact that anabolic steroids with the highest aromatization rates (most conversion to estrogen) are the most effective at increasing muscle mass. Cattle farmers deliberately add estrogen to their cattle steroids in order to promote lean body mass. Of course, any estrogen-boosting effect from LA is going to be minimal compared to that produced by anabolic steroid ingestion.

The sex hormones, including testosterone, are all made from cholesterol through a process called steroidogenesis. Vegetarians, whose diets are particularly low in dietary cholesterol and saturated fats, typically have low testosterone levels. There is much speculation as to why this is so (from the lack of saturated fats and cholesterol in their diets to their high soluble fiber intakes), but the take-home lesson is this: If you want maximum drug-free gains in muscle and strength, forget about sticking to a low-saturated fat / low-cholesterol diet. It just doesn't work.

What about cholesterol and heart disease? Read Part I of this series again, and consider these words from Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD, "The idea that too much animal fat and high cholesterol are dangerous to your heart and vessels is nothing but a myth." If you are already healthy, don't worry about it - in your case the cholesterol is needed.

Steroid Production

Steroid Production
Source: Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

It is also interesting to note that the rate-limiting step of steroiogenesis occurs with the conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone. This step is catalyzed by the P450 side-chain cleavage (P450scc) enzyme. Liver contains this enzyme, as well as other enzymes involved in the steroidogenesis pathways and metabolism of estrogens, in particular. Perhaps this is why many bodybuilders throughout the years have claimed that consuming large amounts of desiccated liver tablets increases their rate of strength and muscle gain and has an "anti-estrogen" effect. I've experienced this myself, many times, and I've advised fellow drug-free bodybuilders/lifters who have reported the same thing.

Clearly, a key to promoting maximum muscle-building hormone levels is to consume a balance of fats and cholesterol. This includes saturates, monounsaturates and polyunsaturates (the EFAs).

The Best Oils To Fry, Boil And Bake With

The unsaturated oils can be very unstable to cook with ...and the more unsaturated an oil is the more unsuitable it is for cooking, baking, frying or boiling. Upon heating (to a certain temperature anyway) the double bonds in the fatty acids quickly oxidize, producing substances known as free radicals. Free radicals are linked to many disease states in the body, including:

For this reason, the safest oils to cook or fry with are the most saturated ones. Remember, the more unsaturated an oil is, the less suitable it is for high temperatures. The following is a list, in descending order, of the best oils and fats to use under heat:

And here are some of the worst oils to cook with:

It's also a good idea to use garlic and onions when frying as they will minimize deteroration within the oil because of their high sulphur content (sulphur acts as an antioxidant, combating the free radicals produced during the frying).

As for boiling (with water), it's not nearly as destructive to oils as frying. When boiling the water holds the temperature to 100 degrees Celsius. This isn't high enough to cause significant damage to even the most sensitive oil, flax oil (flax oil must reach about 160 degrees Celsius before significant deterioration starts to begin).

Baking is a bit more destructive than boiling. The temperature at the surface of the food gets very high (browning of food is actually caused by damaged oils, proteins and carbohydrates). For this reason you should always line baking pans and the surface of what you're baking with butter or tropical oils - to protect the surface from deterioration. The inside of the baking food, however, usually only goes up to temperatures slightly above 100 degrees Celsius. This means that, again, even the most "sensitive" oils can be used in baking; only the oils in the crust are damaged.

Here's a list of common dietary fatty acids and some food sources of them...

Common Fatty Acids

Chemical Names and Descriptions of some Common Fatty Acids
Common Name Carbon
Scientific Name Sources
 Butyric acid 4 0  butanoic acid  butterfat
 Caproic Acid 6 0  hexanoic acid  butterfat
 Caprylic Acid 8 0  octanoic acid  coconut oil
 Capric Acid 10 0  decanoic acid  coconut oil
 Lauric Acid 12 0  dodecanoic acid  coconut oil
 Myristic Acid 14 0  tetradecanoic acid  palm kernel oil
 Palmitic Acid 16 0  hexadecanoic acid  palm oil
 Palmitoleic Acid 16 1  9-hexadecenoic acid  animal fats
 Stearic Acid 18 0  octadecanoic acid  animal fats
 Oleic Acid 18 1  9-octadecenoic acid  olive oil,
 egg yolk  
 Vaccenic Acid 18 1  11-octadecenoic acid  butterfat
 Linoleic Acid 18 2  9,12-octadecadienoic acid  grape seed oil
 Alpha-Linolenic Acid
18 3  9,12,15-octadecatrienoic acid  flaxseed (linseed)
 Gamma-Linolenic Acid 
18 3  6,9,12-octadecatrienoic acid  borage oil,
 evening primrose oil  
 Arachidic Acid 20 0  eicosanoic acid  peanut oil,
 fish oil
 Gadoleic Acid 20 1  9-eicosenoic acid  fish oil
 Arachidonic Acid (AA) 20 4  5,8,11,14-eicosatetraenoic acid  liver fats
 EPA 20 5  5,8,11,14,17-eicosapentaenoic acid  fish oil,
 cod liver oil  
 Behenic acid 22 0  docosanoic acid  rapeseed oil
 Erucic acid 22 1  13-docosenoic acid  rapeseed oil
 DHA 22 6  4,7,10,13,16,19-docosahexaenoic
 fish oil,
 cod liver oil  
 Lignoceric acid 24 0  tetracosanoic acid  small amounts
 in most fats 

Fatty Acid and Cholesterol Composition of Some Common Dietary Fats

Saturated Monounsaturated Polyunsaturated Cholesterol Vitamin E
g/100g g/100g g/100g mg/100g mg/100g
Animal fats
Lard 40.8 43.8 9.6 93 0.00
Butter 54.0 19.8 2.6 230 2.00
Vegetable fats
Coconut oil 85.2 6.6 1.7 0 .66
Palm oil 45.3 41.6 8.3 0 33.12
Cottonseed oil 25.5 21.3 48.1 0 42.77
Wheat germ oil 18.8 15.9 60.7 0 136.65
Soya oil 14.5 23.2 56.5 0 16.29
Olive oil 14.0 69.7 11.2 0 5.10
Corn oil 12.7 24.7 57.8 0 17.24
Sunflower oil 11.9 20.2 63.0 0 49.0 
Safflower 10.2 12.6 72.1 0 40.68
Canola oil 5.3 64.3 24.8 0 22.21

You may find it interesting to note that all fats and oils contain a mixture of the different classifications of fatty acids. Even lard, which has been maligned for years as an "artery clogging" saturated fat, contains only 40.8% saturated fat but 43.8% monounsaturates (which have been heavily publicized as "healthy"). Butter contains 54.0 grams of saturated fats per 100 grams, of which 12 to 15 grams are SCFAs and MCFAs.

General Recommendations

You probably began this series with some preconceived notions about certain fats being "bad" and certain fats being "good". But, as I hope you've come to realize, it isn't quite as black-and-white as many people believe ...especially when building drug-free muscle and a strong body is the goal.

Based on what has been covered, my general advice for someone trying to get bigger and stronger is to get about 30% of daily calories from fat. Of this fat, half should be saturated fats from animal products and tropical oils, one-quarter should be the EFAs (with the ratio of LA to LNA being approximately 4:1), and the remaining quarter should be monounsaturates (egg yolks are a great source). Don't shy excessively away from meat, eggs, milk, cheese and coconut products. Organ meats, primarily liver (and desiccated liver products) should be consumed regularly. The proper balance of dietary fats and cholesterol will promote proper eicosanoid formation and optimum testosterone levels.

If fat loss is the primary goal, 30% is still a wise percentage at which to set dietary fat calories. This is necessary to preserve testosterone levels, slow the digestion of meals and reduce the insulin response to ingested carbs and maintain high growth hormone levels. However, in this case the saturated long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) should be limited while omega-3 polyunsaturate consumption should be increased (i.e. fish oils and flax oil). Saturates, polyunsaturates and monounsaturates should be divided equally with each contributing about one-third of the total fat calories. A 1:1 ratio of LA to LNA should be consumed. If possible, most saturated fat intake should be in the form of SCFAs and MCFAs (i.e. coconut oil, palm oil and butter instead of margarine). Dietary cholesterol should not be unnecessarily restricted.

You also must realize that it's impossible to predict and count the exact number of grams of the EFAs and other nutrients that you'll be taking in on any given day. These percentages are merely guidelines to follow. In truth, exact percentages are really not that important. The important thing is to make an effort to balance your fat intake with regards to what you're trying to achieve and in light of what the research has told us about the various fatty acids, cholesterol and muscle growth.

Dietary Fats, Prostaglandins and Hormones Part I: Introduction and Saturated Fats

Dietary Fats, Prostaglandins and Hormones Part II: Unsaturates and Eicosanoids

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