Macronutrient Fat and Body Composition

Anthony “Dream” Johnson posted some interesting thoughts on biology today. His hypothesis describes fat as the regulator of body composition. I posted my response as a comment, but thought I’d chronicle it here as well.

First, the highlights from Anthony’s post:

…As the title suggests, my working hypothesis is this: fat intake is the defining factor for body composition.

…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.…

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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

And here is my response:

Using fat as the controlling variable in bodyweight. This is actually something I’ve thought about but ran into a logical problem. Without hard data, we can only theorize; a clinical trial should be set up, but I don’t have the resources to do so. And I don’t have the finances to self-experiment (maybe soon, though).

Instead, take the following thought experiment: someone wants to gain as much muscle mass as possible in a short amount of time. Under your logic, they simply keep carbohydrates below ~10% of total calories, protein around one gram per pound of bodyweight (or whatever is optimal), and the rest fat. They increase the amount of fat as much as possible in order to increase calories. If fat is the driving factor behind body composition, then the increase of fat coupled with proper hypertrophy-focused strength training would drive protein into the muscles at an uninhibited rate. However, we know this is not the case, because everyone has a genetic set point for the amount of muscle they can gain, hence the optimal amount of dietary protein. This leaves a number of questions unanswered:

What of the trainee that wants to hack muscle hypertrophy and gain more than is thought possible? We’ve all heard of the Colorado Experiment; it is possible to gain incredible amounts of muscle, but, under this fat-regulating theory, what makes it so? Proteins are the building blocks of muscle, so what happens when the fat-induced hypertrophy outruns the amount of protein available? Does the body take from other protein deposits by atrophying other muscles?

If the body simply stops hypertropying when it runs out of protein, and the body hits the genetic set point for muscle hypertrophy, what happens to the excess dietary fat that is supposed to be driving growth? Does it get deposited as adipose tissue?

What is this “optimal amount of protein”? This most definitely varies with every individual, but how do we find this value?

And most importantly: Do we even know enough to be declaring one macronutrient superior to all other substances? Or, are macronutrients really what we should be so focused on? Many times over the course of medical research history, nutritionists discovered a new nutrient or class of nutrients that they proclaimed to wholely explain some phenomenon—ie. blood cholesterol predicts heart attack (no), antioxidants in wine explain the French Paradox (probably not), vitamins are what you need to be healthy and free of disease (no; antioxidants, minerals, etc are required too), more exercise is better because you can feel the tightness/soreness (no), cardio works the lungs and heart because you can feel the burn (no), dietary protein determines lean mass (probably not), and on and on. How long is this going to go on before we realize we don’t know it all?

Much of the mainstream medical community, and I think this is something BBS mentions, has fallen prey to the ludic fallacy. You can’t simply stuff protein down your throat and expect to build muscle overnight; there are genetics and other things we don’t quite understand that get in the way. Same with exercise and calories and everything else involving biology.

One way to combat the ludic fallacy is to understand that you don’t know what you don’t know. Nutritionists should be less worried about making the next big discovery and more worried about recognizing that they won’t know everything in their lifetime and possibly can’t know everything that is operating within our bodies.

The only way to move past this, I believe, is to better measure our body. By this, I mean finding new metrics on which to track biological changes. In my opinion, this won’t happen for a number of years until synthetic biology matures, but maybe there are new technologies I’m not aware of.

As always, Anthony, if there is some nugget of information I’m ignorant to, feel free to post a list of books, concepts, clinical trials, etc and I’ll pay my dues and read them all before I make any more conclusions. I’m just going off of what I’ve read in books and blogs.

That should hold you over until I scrap together some writing for this blog.

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