Dr. Fat Speaks: An Interview with the Original "Fat Guru", Udo Erasmus
What's the real skinny on fat? I mean, what do you know about fat? You know you don't want to be fat, sure. You no doubt know there are fats necessary for many bodily functions. You know a percentage of your daily diet should be from fats. You surely know the body uses fats for energy. But what past that? Are you eating too much fat? Too little? Every month it seems a new "expert" is telling us how much fat to eat, and every month it seems to be a different amount. We know Muscle Media 2000 readers want the whole story, so we went to the fat source, to the man who has been studying fat the longest, the "fat guru", if you will: Udo Erasmus...
Muscle Media 2000: Let's start with your book. Why the title Fats That Kill Fats That Kill?
Erasmus: There are really two stories there. For instance, there are fats that promote tumor growth and fats that inhibit tumor growth. There are fats that make your platelets sticky, making you more prone to heart attacks and strokes. Other fats have the opposite effect; they actually protect you. There are fats that interfere with insulin function, which is important for bodybuilders, and there are fats that are required for insulin function. There are fats that slow you down and fats that increase your energy levels. These two stories have to be told. And there are a couple of substances from fats the body can't make but absolutely has to have to live and be healthy; it dies if it doesn't get any. These fats have to come from foods. They're just as important as minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. They're called essential fatty acids.
MM2K: Tell us a little about essential fatty acids and distinguish between them.
ERASMUS: Well, essential fatty acids are Omega-6 or linoleic acid and Omega-3 or alpha-linolenic acid. Omega-3's seem to have better benefits in terms of energy levels, cancer, high triglycerides, etc. It's the more therapeutic fat in our society because of the way we eat these days. From Omega-6's and Omega-3's, the body makes derivatives, from which it makes hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins come in good-guy and bad-guy varieties. Simply, Omega-3's make the good guys that block the production of the bad guys.
"Prostaglandins come in good-guy and bad-guy varieties. Simply, Omega-3's make the good guys that block the production of the bad guys."
MM2K: What kinds of fats are caused by the bad guys?
ERASMUS: Well, Omega-6's and stress will make the prostaglandin 2's; these are the bad guys. But Omega-3's will block the production of prostaglandin 2's, so they have a remarkable calming effect. You end up with more energy from them , but you actually feel calmer. Essential fatty acids are also extremely important for brain function.
MM2K: Now, if Omega-6's cause the production of bad prostaglandins, why are they essential?
ERASMUS: The Omega-6's actually generate two families of prostaglandins, one good and one bad. And there's a balance between them. The bad prostaglandins are only bad in the context in which we live. In fact, they have some good functions. They are fight-or-flight prostaglandins. In the jungle, they made sense: what they do is make your platelets stickier, so if you get injured in a fight, you don't lose as much blood. They increase your blood pressure and heart rate which gives you the burst of energy you need if you're going to run away. They also block kidneys from getting rid of water. So if injured, you could lose more fluid without dying. Consequently, they're only bad when you're chronically under stress, chronically in a fight-or-flight situation, but today you don't get to run away or beat up your boss or whoever is triggering that reaction.
MM2K: According to your book, as a population, we're typically deficient in our essential fatty acid intake. How so?
ERASMUS: We're not eating the right foods. The reason for it is, essential fatty acids are very sensitive to destruction by light, oxygen, and high temperatures. The oils rich in Omega-3's are very difficult to keep fresh. You can take amino acids and stick them on a shelf for three years. There's little deterioration but not much. You can do that with vitamins and minerals, too. But if you put essential fatty acid oils on the shelf for three years, they turn into hardened paint. Chemically, they're completely changed. So care has to be taken with oils that doesn't need to be taken with other essential nutrients.
MM2K: So, I guess eating fish would be the place to start in order to get more fatty acids, right?
ERASMUS: Well, it depends on whom you ask. Fish has some derivatives of Omega-3's and Omega-6's. It was traditionally a big part of the diet of coast Indians and Eskimos. But in Europe and certain parts of India and Asia, flax was the oil of choice, and it has about twice as much Omega-3 as fish oils do, but it's more stable and easier to process. So it's preferable except for one draw back: it's very rich in Omega-3's but lacking in Omega-6's. You can become Omega-6 deficient, so flax has to be blended and balanced properly in order to prevent that risk.
MM2K: So, with all these highly processed foods, it's difficult to get the proper ratio of fatty acids in our ordinary diets without supplementation.
ERASMUS: In the average diet, you're probably getting very few Omega-3's. In the normal North American diet, there aren't enough Omega-3's and way too many Omega-6's. In fact, we're way overbalanced.
MM2K: Is there any way to balance this without supplementation?
ERASMUS: You could eat seeds rich in Omega-3's - flax is the richest, but you have to grind it up. If you eat it whole, it goes right through you. You could also eat high-fat, cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, mackerel, and rainbow trout...those kinds of fish or eel and herring.
MM2K: It seems people have developed an aversion to fat. They think if they eat fat, they'll get fat. Why do you think that is?
ERASMUS: Because they've heard only half the story. They heard about the fats that make them fat, like the hard and hydrogenated fats. And they've also heard that fats make you sick; that's mostly because of processing - like frying, hydrogenation, and overheating - when supermarket oils are made, so we've become "fat phobic", but the low-fat diet causes lots of problems. It'll stunt the growth of children and cause dry skin. A lot of bodybuilders have dry skin because they're on low-fat diets. You have low energy levels. You don't produce the testosterone you need for muscle building on a low-fat diet. You get a leaky gut and food allergies. If you stay on a really low-fat diet long enough, your hair will fall out; men become sterile; females miscarry; people get knee pains, not joint pains - arthritis-like conditions; and abnormal heartbeats. A lot of problems are caused by not eating enough fat.
MM2K: That's not a pretty picture. What happens to fried fats? Why aren't they safe?
ERASMUS: Well, they're exposed to the damaging effects of light, oxygen, and high temperatures all at once. There's a very consistent correlation between frying with fats and cancer, hardening of the arteries, as well as inflammatory conditions.
MM2K: So are there any safe fats for frying?
ERASMUS: The only "fat" that's appropriate for frying, in terms of health concerns, is water. That means steaming, poaching, and boiling your foods. After you've prepared your food that way, pour on a good oil or oil blend. That way you get the essential fatty acids you need, you get the flavor enhancement fats bring to foods,you haven't made the fat toxic by overheating it.
MM2K: Let's switch to saturated fats. Biochemically, what are they?
ERASMUS: I'm not being completely accurate here, but all hard fats have quite a bit of saturated fat in them.
MM2K: Hard meaning solid at room temperature?
ERASMUS: Yeah. Basically, pork, beef, and lamb fats, dairy fats, etc., as well as tropical fats.
MM2K: It seems like every month you hear various recommendations about eating higher-fat diets. Generally they say don't eat more than 30% of your total fat calories as saturated fats. Is there any reason at all to have saturated fats in the diet?
ERASMUS: No. The body can make it out of sugar and starch. But you'll find some saturated fat in all fats, including the ones rich in essential fatty acids. The body knows what to do with them. But if you eat a lot of hard fats, they'll interfere with insulin function and make your platelets stickier. The more hard fats you eat, the more essential fatty acids you need to override their effects. Don't be paranoid about them, but don't eat a whole lot of them.
MM2K: So an occasional steak is all right?
ERASMUS: Sure. A tablespoon of butter a day might be okay, but you don't want to be a butter freak. And, bodybuilders, who burn a lot of calories, can eat more saturated fats than sedentary people because the body burns saturated fats for energy.
MM2K: What about polyunsaturated fats?
ERASMUS: Well, polyunsaturated just means more than one double bond. These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature. They include the essential fatty acids, polyunsaturated is a sloppy term I'd like to abolish from the English language. Polyunsaturates can have different effects, like the Omega-6's have opposing effects to the Omega-3's in some ways. Some are toxic because they have been overheated or chemically changed. So it's not a good term.
MM2K: So do polyunsaturates arise primarily from processing?
ERASMUS: They're liquid at room temperature and include the essential fatty acids along with some things that have been damaged by processing. All the oils you see on the grocery-store shelves have been overheated, except for extra virgin olive oil, which is not a good source of essential fatty acids.
MM2K: What are trans-fatty acids?
ERASMUS: Those found in some margarines, shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. They're in all kinds of convenience foods like the croutons people use on their "healthy" Caesar salads. They're also found in soup mixes, breads, cookies, frozen foods, candies, dry soups - all kinds of things. And the trans-fatty acids have a long list of detrimental effects: they double your risk of heart attack and, in research studies, have been shown to do a number of other not-very-pleasant things. For example, they interfere with liver function and insulin function and make your platelets stickier. They're correlated with low-birth-weight human babies; in fact, they're not allowed in baby foods. They increase abnormal sperm and interfere with pregnancy with animals. Additionally, they reduce the effectiveness of liver detoxification functions, and that's important for athletes and people who are using steroids. When you interfere with liver functions, you interfere with the metabolism of those kinds of substances and many others.
MM2K: You never see any labels on foods that say they contain "trans-fatty acids," do you?
ERASMUS: If foods have trans-fatty acids in them, then usually hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated is on the label. And we tell people, "If you see the 'H' word on the label, get the 'H' out of there."
MM2K: Okay, tell me how much fat is too much? Particularly for a bodybuilder.
ERASMUS: The traditional diets that kept people healthy had about 15% to 20% of calories from fats, but they were essential-fatty-acid-rich fats. They were actually oils - seeds, nuts, and oils. The Inuit (Eskimos) got 60% of their calories from fats, but the fats were completely unprocessed. The Inuit chewed whale blubber, which is rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 derivatives. So the amount of fat can go quite high, from a health point of view, without doing damage. Bodybuilders have to look at their own bodyfat. One oil we've used in bodybuilding is called "Udo's Choice Perfected Oil Blend." It's made with flax, sunflower, sesame, rice germ, oat germ, medium-chain triglycerides, and Vitamin E. It's a nice blend - both essential fatty acids are properly balanced, and it's richer in Omega-3's. Another one we've used is flax. I prefer the blend because of its balance. But some of the bodybuilders work with flax, and that may be more important closer to showtime because it's richer in Omega-3's, and the Omega-3's can increase metabolic rate.
MM2K: A lot of bodybuilders are using flaxseed oil exclusively. Are they perhaps creating some sort of imbalance by relying too heavily on flax alone?
ERASMUS: Short term, they're okay. Long term, they're going to have problems. You see, I was the one who introduced flax oil for consumption. That was my first oil. And I've moved away from it because of the poor balance of Omega-3's to Omega-6's. It's too rich in Omega-3's, and people become Omega-6 deficient if they use it exclusively for too long.
MM2K: What if I can't use Udo's Choice and I'm using flax oil; what can I do right now to remedy this situation?
ERASMUS: If you mixed flax and sunflower-seed oil, you could balance the Omega-3's to 6's. Use about three tablespoons of flax to every tablespoon of sunflower.
MM2K: Let's switch gears again. How is it that adding fats can improve levels of testosterone?
ERASMUS: If you don't get the right kinds of fats, you interfere with testosterone production. If optimize the amount of essential fatty acids you get in your diet, then you optimize your body's ability to make testosterone. But the optimum is obviously going to be different for different people. Some people's bodies naturally make more; some naturally make less.
MM2K: Biochemically, what is going on there?
ERASMUS: The essential fatty acids are required for testosterone production. They give the cells in our glands the energy to do their biochemical work. For example, your thyroid gland and pineal gland - we've seen people who have low thyroid levels, which lowers metabolic rate, improve thyroid function by getting essential fatty acids. I think that's because they improve the cell's ability to function properly.
MM2K: How might a bodybuilder introduce higher levels of essential fats to his or her diet?
ERASMUS: The blend is convenient and can be poured onto anything. You can put it on salads or mix it in shakes - that's a really nice way to take it. You can mix it in yogurt or in the yolk of soft-boiled eggs. You can put it on your vegetables, mix it in your pasta, etc. Oils go with everything - fruits, vegetables, grains, starches, or protein.
MM2K: Bodybuilders are typically eating at least six times a day. Can they add oil to every meal?
ERASMUS: Yes. The way I measure oil requirement is by how the skin feels. That'll work for bodybuilders too. If your skin is soft, smooth, and velvety, you have enough oil. If your skin is dry, you need more oil. I've seen bodybuilders who have really dry knuckles. They need more oil. I work with bodybuilders whose knees hurt. They need more oil. But the skin is the easiest way to tell. And you'll find in winter, when it's cold, your skin gets drier than in summer when it's warm. So in winter you need more oil.
MM2K: How much should you have with each meal?
ERASMUS: For me, in summer, probably 2 1/4 tablespoons a day, so that's about 10% of my calories. In winter, I need about 2 3/4 tablespoons, so I need half a tablespoon more in winter. For bodybuilders, they may need a little more. They may need three, four, even five tablespoons, depending on how big they are and how much physical exercise they get. But either way, the skin feel will tell them. It's different for different people, but everyone can monitor it.
MM2K: Can essential fatty acids help reduce soreness or speed up recovery?
ERASMUS: Yes, because they increase metabolic rate and oxygen metabolism. Anything that speeds up your body's ability to use oxygen means you can go longer before you're tired. You also recover from exercise quicker. That's true for fatigue and healing. Athletes who take essential fatty acids find that their bruises , sprains, pains, and ligaments heal quicker. And, of course, when you're bodybuilding, your muscles are injured on a molecular level, not on a gross level. We also find that people don't swell so much after surgery. These healing effects happen because essential fatty acids are involved in the processes of every cell.
MM2K: What do you recommend for a daily ratio of protein, fats, and carbs?
ERASMUS: The athletes I work with and talk to say 30/30/40 [30% protein, 30% fats, and 40% carbs] is too low in carbs and too high in protein, and usually go on a 20/20/60 diet. I'd modify that a little and do 20% protein, 30% oil - the right kinds of oils - and 50% carbs. But again, you can't give a number that works for everybody. Athletes have different needs. I need more protein than a lot of people I know, and it's different for different athletes. So to some extent, you have to experiment. You just can't say, "This is the way it's got to be for everybody."
MM2K: Earlier, you suggested 15% to 20% might be better, but now you say 30%. Is the 30% fat more for athletes?
ERASMUS: Well, I say 30% because I think increasing your protein too much has some detrimental effects. Too much protein is hard on your kidneys and liver, and if your liver doesn't work properly, it's also hard on your brain and other internal organs. If the fats are rich in essential fatty acids, you can go up to 60% without causing major problems, so I'd rather keep the proteins lower and increase the fats...
Certainly, much of what Udo Erasmus has said here was news to many of us. He definitely spooned up a heaping amount of food for thought. You shouldn't be afraid of fats. You know this now. Although we covered much ground in the area of fats, there's much more too it. Like he said, "There's more to the story."
And in his professional opinion, that's why people are afraid of fats. "When people think of fats, they're not thinking of the good ones, the ones that stimulate calorie burning. Before this, they were getting only half the story."
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