Eat lots of protein.
Don’t eat too much fat.
Eat carbs before and after working out.
Such advice is so oft-repeated (and with mostly good reason) that almost anyone engaged in a strength training regime doesn’t give it second thought. Here, however, is food for thought: not all fat is bad. One such type of the formerly maligned macronutrient is known as EFA – short for essential fatty acid.
Why “essential”? Because EFAs cannot be created by the body, yet are imperative to our wellbeing. They must be had through diet (or supplementation). EFAs are used for a myriad of biological functions. Given that the body is designed to move, it should come as no surprise that many of these functions are a critical part of what makes a training and diet regime successful.
What are they? EFAs are primarily referred to as Omega-3 and Omega-6. Other types of fatty acids – Omega-7 and Omega-9 – are also important – however, the body can produce them in the presence of the essential EFAs. Consuming an ideal ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 is very important. An ideal ratio is between 2:1 and 4:1 Omega-3 to Omega-6. Unfortunately, the typical Westernized diet provides most people with a full reversal, or worse, of the ideal. An over-consumption of Omega-6 can result in inflammatory processes which could hinder muscle growth and repair, and fat loss, as well as increase pain.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Alpha Linolenic Acid (LNA)
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
LNA can be converted by the body into EPA and DHA.
Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids
Linoleic Acid (LA)
Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA)
Dihomogamma Linoleic Acid (DGLA)
Arachidonic Acid (AA)
Just like LNA can be converted into other Omega-3s, the Omega-6, LA, can be converted into other Omega-6 essential fatty acids.
Why are EFAs important for muscle growth?
Essential fatty acids help facilitate muscle growth in a number of ways. One such way is through the formation of eicosanoids –molecules which exert control over bodily systems such as immunity and inflammation, and act as molecular messenger in the CNS (central nervous system). Eicosanoids can also be classified into prostaglandins, leukotrienes and thromboxanes. Prostaglandins are of the most importance to muscle growth. They:
- Increase sensitivity to insulin
- Help maintain normal levels of testosterone – the primary, male androgen hormone
- Increase the body’s secretion of growth hormone
- Increase the synthesis of protein in muscle cells
These functions are critical to achieving muscle growth during intensive training. In addition, EFAs powerfully affect the formation of fat tissue and fat metabolism. All the Omega-3s increase the breakdown of body fat; they also encourage the body to burn stored fat as fuel.
Beyond the immediately apparent effects on muscle growth and body composition, essential fatty acids help reduce inflammation, heal injuries, speed recovery and strengthen the immune system (important when engaging in repetitive movement with heavy weights and physical exertion that can weaken immunity); and improve sleep, concentration, stamina, increase blood-oxygen levels and improve cardiovascular function (all of which lead to more effective and intense workouts).
Research shows that to maximize muscle growth, decrease body fat and improve general health, men may consume between 3 and 3.5 grams of EFAs from all sources (food and supplements) daily; women may consume between 2.5 and 3 grams from all sources daily.
Essential fatty acids are found in foods and supplements. The downside of food sources is that many (fish and fully pastured – grass fed – cattle being exceptions) are higher in Omega-6 than Omega-3.
Foods High in Essential Fatty Acid
- Flax seed oil
- True free-run eggs
- Dark leafy greens
- Chestnut oil
- Evening Primrose oil
- Sesame seeds
- Pistachio nuts