I’ve had this on my mind since the Spring of 2010. I even wrote a rough draft of what follows before my travels to Europe.
I have since scrapped that, and have decided to begin anew.
As the title suggests, my working hypothesis is this: fat intake is the defining factor for body composition.
Now, for those neck deep in conventional wisdom, this makes a lot of sense – if taken to mean that fat intake will determine whether or not one is “fat”.
“Eat fat get fat.”
“Eat less fat get skinny.”
Well, for those that are long time readers of this blog, or otherwise aware that fat is a gift from Zeus himself, you know very well that this is not the idea I am supporting or looking to perpetuate in any way.
What I am suggesting more literally is this: (proper) fat intake determines body composition in all senses of the term.
Not only body fat levels, but muscle mass as well – contrary to popular opinion that excessive protein intake is the be all end all for promoting muscular hypertrophy within the limits of your genetic potential.
It should be, but before you grab the pitch fork and torch, let’s think further about this, and reveal how I came to this conclusion.
1. Carbohydrate is an unnecessary nutrient in the diet.
It’s true. Born a normal, healthy human being, you absolutely do not need to ever eat carbohydrate, so far as I am aware. You simply don’t need it.
Some argue you need at least some for optimal health, others argue that only carbohydrate contains certain vitamins and minerals that you won’t find adequate amounts of elsewhere.
While I disagree with both of these ideas – especially the latter – they are aside the point that you do not need carbohydrate in and of itself, from the diet, to survive.
2. Humans evolved, and are adapted as such, to consume mostly cooked animals.
I’ve written about this ad infinitum on TDL before, both here and here. Long story short, I am utterly convinced humans evolved eating animals, lots of them, and mostly cooked over the past few hundred thousand years.
As such, I find the optimal human diet to be one that consists mostly of … you guessed it, cooked animals.
If you disagree, I congratulate you on forming your own opinion. However, this doesn’t change the fact that you’re flat out wrong, or more likely, misinformed and coming to wrong (and perhaps even dangerous) conclusions as a result.
All that said, I don’t think “eating plants” will be the end of you. Some even, by coincidence, over lap pretty well with the nutritional content found in “animals”, in a very general sense of the term.
Common and easy to find examples in today’s food repertoire would include dark chocolate and coconut fat, among others.
3. If we are to accept premises 1 and 2 as listed above, we must then accept the premise that insulin levels were chronically low in (most) humans throughout the vast majority of our evolution.
The only extraordinary spikes in insulin production would come from an exceedingly rare surplus of carbohydrate – fruit in the summer time, finding honey, etc – or alternatively, and perhaps somewhat more commonly, a large kill and/or surplus of meat, for whatever reason.
Considering that for most of our history our ancestors practiced “intermittent fasting” involuntarily – because they were starving half the time – eating till they were blue in the face is an opportunity they probably would not have passed up, when it presented itself.
Now, why would ‘meat’ (or eggs, or any other animal product containing protein) spike insulin?
Well, so far as I am aware – and this seems to be a neglected fact in the low/zero carb community – protein spikes insulin every bit as much as carbohydrate does.
While insulin is not inherently evil, and is in fact necessary, this is interesting to note because even when carbohydrate is dramatically reduced in the diet – or almost entirely eliminated – the first idea people gravitate to – to further lower body fat levels or increase muscle mass – is the idea that protein can and should be consumed in copious amounts, with complete disregard for the insulin release that it promotes.
Which is interesting, because this is the idea commonly practiced by the person who just took very intentional steps to lower insulin levels.
Even more interesting is the idea of whether or not you have the ability to use more protein than is required for the purpose of muscular hypertrophy.
That is, can you suck down protein, and force your muscles to grow, more than they would otherwise from their natural course, and provided stimulus (preferably, properly conducted strength training).
My guess is, no, you can’t, no matter how much we would like to sometimes.
Which means, there is degree of protein intake that equates to a minimum amount necessary for the production of new muscle tissue, various bodily processes, and in the case of a low or very low carbohydrate diet, energy via gluconeogenesis.
As a direct consequence, if you get in the realm of this minimum amount necessary, you are (in combination with a low or very low intake of carbohydrate), stimulating the minimum amount necessary of insulin.
Or, getting close enough to that optimal level that the difference between your intake and the optimal amount for you as an individual, is negligible.
Some would argue that there are other benefits to enormous, or even elevated levels of protein in the diet. While I won’t take the time to debunk these – because I can’t at present, don’t care to, the benefit is real*, or some combination there of – I would encourage you to look at our history as a species with regards to diet, and what could possibly be optimal for producing your ideal and peak body composition, with regards to both body fat and muscle mass.
*Any benefit of elevated levels of protein in the diet has to be immediately weighed against raising insulin levels – insulin being a trump hormone – beyond what is absolutely and minimally necessary.
I would also warn that, so far as I am aware, most of the people supporting these “protein is the essence of all things holy” ideas, are the same people perpetuating ideas like (the conventional view of) cardio – the most mystical, ill devised, irrational, and devoid of logic use of time created within the past 100 years.
Now, if carbohydrate is limited in the diet (or so low it is borderline irrelevant), and there is a minimum amount necessary of protein for health, energy, and the production of new muscle, this leaves us fat as the key and primary nutrient to tinker with.
My hypothesis is this: if you have difficulty gaining muscle, and are naturally thin, you should be eating as much fat as possible (mostly saturated), from the best sources you have available.
In doing so, you provide your body with a calorie (energy) surplus – probably not a bad idea in the process of attempting to stimulate the production of the riskiest investment by your body possible: new skeletal muscle.
The catch here being, by providing those calories via saturated fat – diesel fuel for the body – you do so without stimulating any extra insulin (or, any meaningful amount of it).
In this sense, you are promoting the best hormonal environment possible while simultaneously providing your body with an energy surplus – never mind that saturated fat and cholesterol (often accompanying saturated fat) are the building blocks of testosterone, among other hormones.
With regards to decreasing body fat levels, I believe fat (mostly saturated) to still be the primary and key dietary nutrient to success, not protein as is common opinion.
To clarify the premise: carbohydrate should always remain low, or very low in the human diet, if at all possible, and with your best health in mind.
If we accept this, and we accept that there is a minimum amount necessary of protein for optimal health and maintaining (or even increasing) muscle mass in the face of fat loss, then only fat intake is left to tinker with.
For why would increasing insulin – THE fat storing hormone – levels be desirable during an attempt to lower and then maintain a decreased level of body fat?
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not.
In conclusion, and rare occasions aside, we should all be eating low or very low levels of carbohydrate (with respect for the idea that the maximum tolerable amount for best health and personal preference may differ from individual to individual).
Similarly, the amount of protein we consume – regardless of goals and desires – should remain relatively constant and in the realm of the minimum amount necessary (unlike the highest tolerable amount of carbohydrate, should we choose to eat any significant amount in the first place).
The dietary nutrient that can and should be experimented with, with regards to our individual aims – whatever they may be – is fat (which should always consist of mostly saturated fat, from the best sources available, budget and circumstances permitting).
As such, I believe the idea that protein is the deciding factor (within our control) in body composition, to be faulty – muscle mass and body fat alike.
It’s not protein, it’s fat – saturated fat. Increase it, decrease it, it’s what we have to work with, like it or not, profitable or not.
-Anthony ‘Dream’ Johnson