When we introduced the ETP Calculator, a lot of minds were blown. The (seemingly) no-brainer concept of eating enough food to fuel an athletic lifestyle flies in the face of conventional “diet” advice; the majority of the fitness community still believes that you need to create a massive calorie deficit to lose body fat. As far as we may have come, many potential converts to the balanced, intuitive approach we espouse here at Eat To Perform still insist on sticking to the low carb diet that got them where they are now (but killed their performance), albeit with an appropriate amount of overall calories.
While it’s certainly favorable compared to under eating, a balanced diet of carbs as well as fat is vital to achieving optimal performance and body composition. Developing the Metabolic Flexibility to transition between fat and carbohydrate metabolism is a large part of what we talk about in the Eat To Perform Science Lab groups and seminars. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about a pretty disturbing dietary behavior that some people are engaging in on their control days, and I had to say something to clear this up. I’m talking about the over-reliance on fats from oils and nuts to hit daily macronutrient goals.
The conversation typically goes something like this:
“So I have my TDEE, and I set my carbs at 100g (This is very low; that only really covers basic brain function) and it says I need 174g of fat.”
This is just an example, but it’s very common. So that’s 1566 calories from fat alone. Don’t get me wrong; fat rules! It’s very important and we’re big fans of getting a healthy amount, but like I said, you need carbs too…Anyway, at least they’re getting enough overall calories; we’re moving in the right direction…Or so I think. Next, I hear something to the tune of…
“I don’t really like fats from meat, so I have been taking 4 tablespoons of olive/coconut oil/grass fed butter/etc. to get there.”
At this point, I can’t help but think that something has been lost in translation.
Fat CAN be Stored as Fat
A commonly accepted myth among proponents of low carb diets is that it’s impossible to store fat on a ketogenic diet. They’re only partially right about this one; as long as calories are low and you’re in a deficit, it’s pretty hard to store fat as fat.
This is where the disconnect occurs as far as Eat To Perform and a very high fat diet is concerned: We aren’t eating a low calorie diet per se.
We suggest a “mostly building” approach to overall energy intake that allows you to put on muscle so that you can burn more body fat while you’re at rest. Muscle looks good, it increases performance, and it burns fat. The whole process is easier with carbs in the mix to get the insulin flowing. The issue is ultimately that many of the fats people are reliant upon to meet their goals (especially on rest days where your energy expenditure will be slightly lower to begin with) are some of the easiest to store. It’s simply too easy to end up in an energy surplus if you go overboard with these sources. That doesn’t exactly benefit you if you’re trying to lean out.
When to Use Fats and Oils
I hope nobody reads this and gets the wrong idea. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not suggesting that you to abstain from the use of these fat sources, but intentionally adding them to your diet in an effort to keep carbs low is a big mistake. Under these circumstances, you would be better off just eating slightly less for the day. Nobody should be downing tablespoons of oil to meet fat/calorie goals!
This is what I would recommend:
- Butter or ghee: Cooking your eggs with these options is fine. Frying your steak? Once again, that’s fine…But intentionally adding several tablespoons of butter or ghee to get your calories up is unnecessary.
- MCT Oil: I’m a fan of Bulletproof® Coffee from time to time, but not every day. MCT oil is converted into energy very quickly so it’s pretty hard to store. That doesn’t give you license to slurp down endless amounts of this easily-available energy source; 1-2 tbsp. In the morning and post-workout may be appropriate.
- Full-fat coconut milk: Look, if you have had a relatively light day meal-wise and you have gotten in your protein, have at it. For most people, relying on full fat coconut milk as a main energy source that they use daily is going to be a mistake.
- Olive Oil: Contrary to popular belief, olive oil is not a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids so there’s no point in attempting to replace fish oil with it. Don’t avoid cooking with it or using it as a base for your salad dressing, but please, leave the gratuitous olive oil chugging to Furious Pete:
Why Low Carb in the First Place?
While there are health benefits to following a low carb diet (such as controlling hunger, decreasing systemic inflammation, and improving insulin sensitivity) there is little evidence to substantiate the claim that you’ll lose significantly more body fat. When comparing high carb and low carb diets, it’s apparent that weight loss is dependent upon energy debt, not macronutrient composition, and that lean mass will be retained as long as there is sufficient protein intake (A Golay). Furthermore, low carb diets in high intensity athletes have been shown time and time again to be a tragic mismatch due to glycogen depletion (Langfort J). High intensity athletes need some level of carbs in their diet! We prefer to get the best of both worlds and use high fat days, as well as high carb days, to achieve optimal health, performance, and (as a result) body composition without eating in an overly-restrictive manner.
Still, there is a frightening parallel between downing easily-consumable oil to meet your calorie requirements and eating cookies, cake, and pizza every day without regard for your health. Whole foods should be the basis of your nutrition at least 80% of the time. You should go for energy-dense sources of protein that are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids like pastured eggs, 85:15 ground beef, and wild-caught salmon so that you get your essential fatty acids in a natural package. Foods like avocado, bacon, and nuts can help round things out, but there’s no reason to obsess over your fat/calorie intake at the end of the day. Use oils and butter when you cook or as a supplement, not as a primary source of nutrition. I hope this can help clear things up a bit.
- A balanced diet of carbs and fats is necessary to achieve optimal performance. There is nothing magical about a low carb diet, and it will probably have a detrimental impact on your performance.
- Relying too much on oils and butter to supplement your fat intake on low carb days is a big mistake; it’s too easy to end up in an energy surplus if you go overboard.
- You should get most of your fat from whole food sources like grass fed beef and wild-caught fish
- Use butter, ghee, and olive oil in your cooking.
- Many people enjoy a Bulletproof Coffee w/ coconut or MCT oil in the morning.
A Golay, A F Allaz, Y Morel, N de Tonnac, S Tankova, and G Reaven. Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. February 1996. 1 May 2013 <http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/63/2/174.abstract>.
Langfort J, Zarzeczny R, Pilis W, Nazar K, Kaciuba-Uścitko H. The effect of a low-carbohydrate diet on performance, hormonal and metabolic responses to a 30-s bout of supramaximal exercise. 1997. 1 May 2013 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9272770>.