Matt Fitzgerald, who has written a slew of articles and books about endurance sports with a special focus on nutrition and is a 33-minute 10K runner himself, has a nice blog entry today about the tendency of people to approach weight loss in the mistaken belief that getting rid of a particular macronutrient is “the secret.”
Fat is the victim of an unfortunate name. It is all too easy to believe that eating fat makes a person fat. Indeed, for many years most diet experts believed that it did, and many do even today despite compelling evidence that eating a fairly high-fat diet is no more likely to cause overweight than eating a high-carbohydrate or high-protein diet. For example, in a 2002 review, entitled “The Influence of Dietary Composition on Energy Intake and Body Weight,” Roberts et al. noted that 1) fat calories as a percentage of total calories in the American diet have fallen over the preceding 20 years while overweight and obesity rates have increased drastically; 2) studies designed to determine whether people eat more calories when they eat more fat have generally concluded that they do so only when the energy-density of foods in not controlled, suggesting that energy-dense foods rather than fat per se are the cause of weight gain; and 3) studies investigating the effects of reduced fat intake on weight loss have shown that reduced fat intake results in very little weight loss when calories are not controlled, suggesting that it is an excess of calories in general rather than of fat in particular that causes weight gain.
People have been trying the selective-nutrient-deprivation things for at least 20 years now. When I was in college, fat was the enemy; there commenced a proliferation of products like Snackwells that were specifically created as fat-free goodies, and foods that had always been fat-free (e.g., pretzels), suddenly announced this on their packaging.
But America in general continued its tend toward bloatation, so in the late 1990’s, constructs such as the Atkins diet, which more or less demonized carbohydrates that didn’t grow in the ground and feature leaves, became vastly popular. A carbo-depletion diet is a great weapon for an entrepreneur because it works extremely well in the short term; as glycogen stores in liver and muscle are consumed, three grams of water are lost for every gram of glycogen burned, so no matter who you are and what you do, you’re going to lose 5-6 pounds off the bat by following an Atkins-style plan. That’s the “hook.” But once the honeymoon is over, people tend to experience fatigue and mood crashes if they severely restrict carbohydrates–and that’s just the sedentary ones. No sane athlete would ever attempt to stay on this failed bandwagon for long.
Protein is unlikely to ever become a target, because it’s almost impossible to eat such an excess of it in isolation that it can be fingered as any sort of culprit. Ever notice how thirsty you get after a steak or even a tuna sub? It takes a lot of water to break down protein, and there’s something uncomfortable about having too much circulating nitrogen, or something.
Anyway, the bottom line is that people are resistant to the unfortunate truth: If you want to lose weight, gimmicks and half-measures won’t get you there.
Matt notes that fat may actually have specific benefits, at least in runners:
[A] study from the University of Buffalo found that female runners who got 30 percent of their calories from fat were significantly less likely to get injured than those who ate less fat. It is not likely that the extra fat itself protected the less-often-injured runners, however. Rather, those who ate the least fat probably did not get enough total calories to meet their bodies’ needs.
Another line of research has shown that higher-fat diets increase fat oxidation during prolonged exercise and may thereby increase endurance. Researchers from New Zealand compared the effects of a 14-day high-carbohydrate diet, a 14-day high-fat diet, and an 11.5-day high-fat diet followed by a 2.5-day carbo-loading diet on fat oxidation and performance in a 15-minute cycling test and a 100-km cycling test. Performance in the 15-minute test was slightly better after the high-carb diet, but not to a statistically significant degree, while performance in the 100-km test was slightly better, but again not to a statistically significant degree, following the high-fat diet. Fat oxidation was significantly greater during the 100-km test following the high-fat diet.
Other studies have found that high-fat diets reduce performance in shorter time trials by reducing carbohydrate oxidation. However, recent research indicates that endurance athletes can have the best of both worlds by maintaining a habitual higher-fat diet in training and then switching to a high-carbohydrate diet before competition. Studies have shown that the high-fat diet adaptation of increased fat oxidation capacity persists through the carbohydrate loading period, which in turn ensures that carbohydrate oxidation capacity is not compromised in competition. A study from the University of Cape Town South Africa found that a 10-day, 65-percent fat diet followed by a three-day, 70-percent carbohydrate diet increased performance by 4.5 percent in a 20 km cycling time trial preceded by a glycogen depletion ride.
I once had a roommate whom I did not know before moving in with her. She knew I was a marathon runner, and on this basis decided I would exist on some kind of macrobiotic regimen and shun foods like pasta (which of course is a runner’s–and pauper’s–staple). She was hoping to get active herself and lose some weight, and later admitted she was counting on me to be a dietary role model. I would not advise anyone to do this, ever. People don’t become fast by playing around with their diets, or more specifically, by placing severe restrictions on certain items (“foods” such as straight warm vodka excepted). To wit:
It also bears noting on this topic that the typical endurance athlete gets 30 to 35 percent of his or her daily calories from fat–substantially more than the minimum. Indeed, even most elite American endurance athletes maintain relatively high-fat diets. The fact that our most gifted runners, cyclists, rowers, etcetera are routinely able to win national championships on a high-fat diet is the best possible proof that a high-fat diet is not inimical to endurance performance.
Based perhaps in part on this commonsense consideration, as well as on the relevant science, the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine now recommend that athletes get 20 to 35 percent of their calories from fat. Gone is the notion that the minimal adequate level of fat intake is also the optimal or even the maximum acceptable level of fat intake. It is now recognized that many athletes can perform equally well at a range of fat intake levels, and that some individual athletes may need to experiment before they find their personal “sweet spot” within that range.
Matt’s blog is always well researched and probably includes more actual science than this one does, so if you have any inclination at all toward running or endurance sports in general, consider bookmarking it.