Chris Masterjohn (Part 1)

by on July 24, 2010

JOHN: Chris, thank you very much for your time. Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself, your background, and about what you are passionate about in terms of nutrition?

CHRIS: John, it’s my pleasure and a great honor to be interviewed for your new website. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

At the most basic level my goal is to wake up each morning, thank God for the new day, and make the most of each of the moments in that day to do my best in whatever lies before me, and especially to make myself of service to others.

When I was a kid, my story was in many ways the opposite of yours. I was an avid reader, but you would never catch me reading anatomy and physiology. When I was 13, I was really skinny and stayed that way for a long time! I did, however, begin taking an interest in health and nutrition several years later when my mother managed to cure herself of fibromyalgia through diet, herbal and nutritional supplements, and yoga. Unfortunately, I made some pretty bad choices in my late teens and went on a vegetarian diet — even vegan for a period of time — that I did not do well on.

When I was an undergrad, I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in History. I wanted to be a high school social studies teacher. I ran into huge problems with anxiety, tooth decay, and digestive problems. However, my discovery of Weston Price’s work and the Weston A. Price Foundation allowed me to turn these problems around very quickly. I thus became enamored with the possibility of using the knowledge I had gained, to help other people improve their health as well. My first thought was to apply to medical school. When I graduated, I began taking the science classes I would need to get into med school. At the same time, I started writing for the Weston A. Price Foundation. Doing research for these articles really made me want to get into research myself, so I wound up where I am now, pursuing my PhD in Nutritional Science at the University of Connecticut.

My main passion in this field, I would say, is returning to real food. I would like to see grass-roots support for locally-based, soil-conscious farming and free-range, grass-fed animal products. I would like to see this become the basis for a return to food as truly effective, preventative medicine.

JOHN: Having done some writing on bodybuilding, what would you say are the biggest or most common mistakes people make in their dietary regimen?

CHRIS: I think the biggest problem is focusing on macronutrients at the expense of micronutrients. There’s also a tendency toward fat-phobia, which can easily be found among people who aren’t into bodybuilding too.

Bodybuilders will often eat huge quantities of protein without any regard for the vitamins and minerals that help turn that protein into muscle mass. Animal studies, for example, show that eating lots of protein causes a massive increase in the turnover of vitamin A. This suggests that either we need protein to use vitamin A or we need vitamin A to use protein. One way or the other, if we load up on protein without getting plenty of vitamin A to go with it, over time we will run low on vitamin A. This can compromise testosterone production and metabolism, which can make it harder to build muscle.

JOHN: Testosterone production and metabolism, I think my athletes might want to hear more on this. Can you talk more about the best sources of vitamin A and what we can do to enhance Vitamin A absorption since it is fat soluble?

CHRIS: The best sources of vitamin A, are, hands down, liver and cod liver oil.

JOHN: How often should we eat liver, since our own livers can store Vitamin A for a little while?

CHRIS: I think liver once a week is a good idea, but it depends on the person and situation. When I was recovering from my bout with vegetarianism I ate buffalo liver for breakfast almost every day for about a year. Animal experiments suggest that vitamin A “stores” are not simply storage sheds full of “extra” vitamin but are very dynamic. When the “stores” increase, the vitamin A molecules circulate much more actively and do more things in the body. So for someone who hasn’t been getting much vitamin A for a long period of time, they probably still have some vitamin A in their liver, but they probably want to get lots of vitamin A for some period of time to “fill up the tank.” Unfortunately, the vitamin A requirement in humans is not well characterized. The RDA is 3,000 IU per day and the upper limit is 10,000 IU per day, but most traditional diets probably consisted of amounts closer to the upper limit than the RDA, some in great excess of the upper limit. For example the traditional diet of the Greenland Inuit provided about 30,000 IU of vitamin A per day.

It’s important to recognize that vitamin A is part of a fat-soluble vitamin network with vitamins D and K. If you get a lot of vitamin A from liver, you want to get a lot of vitamin D from sunshine, cod liver oil, or fatty fish, and you want to get a lot of vitamin K1 from green vegetables but you especially want to get vitamin K2 from grass-fed animal fats, egg yolks, cheeses, and fermented foods. Likewise you don’t want to take a lot of vitamin D without getting lots of vitamins A and K either.

But liver has a lot more than that. It’s incredibly rich in B vitamins, choline, and probably very high in a lot of nutrients that people tend to take as expensive pills. It’s really an energy powerhouse and it’s value transcends that of any one vitamin.

Shellfish like oysters and clams are great sources of zinc and B12. I think if you ate a lot of liver and shellfish and were very active you could get by on a very low-fat diet. If you’re relying on eggs, milk, and muscle meats, however, you need to eat a good amount of fat just to get your full spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Most of these issues aren’t specific to bodybuilders necessarily – in general, we all need to think less about “fat” and “cholesterol” and “calories” and start thinking about the quality of our food.

It is also key to remember, carotenes in red, orange, and green plant foods can be converted to vitamin A, but the ability to make this conversion varies greatly from person to person. It makes the most sense then, to get at least the RDA for vitamin A — about 3,000 IU per day — as a minimum from animal foods and supplement this with carotene-rich fruits and vegetables. A single serving of liver per week or several servings of high-vitamin cod liver oil per week could provide this amount of vitamin A. Smaller amounts can be found in other organ meats, egg yolks, and butterfat.

You don’t need to eat gobs and gobs of fat every day to get animal-based nutrients as long as you eat the correct nutrient-dense animal products. Going back to liver, for example, will provide plenty of the arachidonic acid needed for the growth of new tissue, plenty of vitamin A for protein utilization and testosterone production.

Vitamin A from animal foods and carotenes from plant foods are both fat-soluble, so you need to eat some fat with them in order to absorb them properly. The most bioavailable source of vitamin A from plant foods is red palm oil, because the carotenes are actually fully dissolved into the oily matrix. In fruits and vegetables, the carotenes are caught up in a fibrous matrix; eating them with some fat will help, but in general the bioavailability is much lower for these foods than for red palm oil. Red palm oil is also incredibly high in vitamin E, which protects the carotenes from oxidative destruction in the intestines, and very low in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which promote oxidative destruction.

JOHN: And since it is a saturated fat and has a high smoke point, cooking with this oil would be good to correct? Dr Serrano always told me to not neglect red palm oil because of the Vitamin E in it also…I am officially off to the grocery to get some this weekend now!

CHRIS: That’s true, palm oil is very stable under heat. It actually has a lot of monounsaturated fat in it, not just saturated, but monounsaturated fat is also pretty stable to heat. The high content of vitamin E and carotenes help stabilize it to high heat as well, but the longer you cook it and the higher the temperatures you use, the more of these nutrients you will lose. So if you want to maximize the benefit of the oil, it’s best to use it raw or in fairly low-intensity cooking applications like sauting.

Going back to low vitamin A levels. There is evidence tying low vitamin A levels to asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney stones, fatty liver disease, vulnerability to environmental toxins, and vulnerability to oxidative stress, which is a state of molecular degeneration that underlies essentially all of the chronic, degenerative diseases.

If you want to get similar benefits from eating vegetables, the closest you could come is to put some grass-fed butter on them, which is also rich in vitamin E and low in polyunsaturated fat. This will provide a protective environment in your intestines for the carotenes and provide enough fat to help absorb them.

JOHN: How much grass fed butter would be added to veggies, 1 tbsp??

CHRIS: The more fat you consume the more carotenes you’ll absorb from the veggies. In terms of what has been studied, there really isn’t any limit to this, so how much fat you consume should be limited by other concerns, like the calorie content of the meal, or the proportion of fat in a meal that makes you feel best afterwards. There was an older study that is sometimes cited that found that 3-5 grams of fat were all that were needed to maximize carotene absorption, but this used small amounts of purified carotenes dissolved in an oily matrix. A 2004 study found that the absorption of larger amounts of carotenes from a salad found that absorption was minimal with fat-free dressing, increased with low-fat dressing providing 6 grams of fat, and increased even further with 28 grams of fat. They were using a typical salad dressing with canola in it, which is junk. The principle of how much fat is required should transfer over to other fats though. This basically corresponds to eating your veggies plain, with a little more than a teaspoon of butter, or with a little over two tablespoons of butter.

This is also true of the other fat-soluble vitamins. For example there was a study where different levels of fat in cream cheese on a bagel were used and the absorption of vitamin E was measured. They used up to 11 grams of fat — about a tablespoon of butter — and found that the vitamin E absorption kept increasing.

But none of these studies ever achieved full absorption. Presumably if the fat level went higher and higher, the absorption would go higher and higher too. There’s no reason for complete absorption obviously. Rather, these studies should simply make us realize that fat is an important part of a balanced meal.

JOHN: You have mentioned a couple of times, the damage that polyunsaturated fats can do…can you talk about that a little more? Everyone seems to think that loading up on polys is a good idea…specifically fish oil. I myself ask people to eat Wild Caught salmon several times a week. Is that overkill?

CHRIS: I think 2-3 servings of salmon per week is fine if this is the only or main source of omega-3 fats.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated. I like to abbreviate the term “polyunsaturated fatty acids” to “PUFAs,” (pronounced POO-fahs). The problem with PUFAs is that they are very vulnerable to oxidation. This means they are delicate. Imagine the process of oxidative stress as one of many molecules breaking apart, similar to glass breaking apart. Glass can be very useful. We may drink water day in and day out with a glass, and it helps us get our sustenance. But if we drop the glass on the floor, it could break. Then it becomes dangerous, because we can step on the shards and cut our feet for example. Likewise, when PUFAs “shatter” in the body there are “shards” left over that can damage proteins and DNA. This is called “oxidative stress” and it contributes to basically all of the chronic degenerative diseases.

We absolutely DO need a small amount of PUFAs, both omega-3 and omega-6. The evidence appears to single out arachidonic acid as the essential omega-6 fatty acid and DHA as the essential omega-3 fatty acid. Arachidonic acid is found most abundantly in liver and egg yolks and to a lesser extent in butter, lard, meat, and all animal fats. DHA is found most abundantly in fatty fish, fish oils, and fish liver oils, and to a lesser extent in egg yolks, meat, and all animal fats, especially those that are grass-fed. We can make these fatty acids from their precursors in plant oils, but the conversion is inefficient. The need for these essential but very delicate fatty acids is most pronounced during growth, repair from injury, pregnancy and lactation, or during conditions of oxidative stress where they become depleted. For a healthy adult, the need for these fatty acids is so minimal that they are basically not essential at all. For someone who is growing, whether that be a child or a bodybuilder putting on muscle mass, they become essential, but the need for them is still probably less than one percent of calories.

Arachidonic acid and DHA constitute a small percentage of the PUFAs in a typical diet. Most people get huge amounts of the omega-6 linoleic acid from vegetable oils, and people who use flax oil get large amounts of the omega-3 linolenic acid. DHA and arachidonic acid are present in milligram amounts in our diet like many vitamins, but these other fats from plant oils are present in gram amounts.

What happens when we get too much PUFA? Well, imagine you have delicate glass. You start buying so many glasses that you can’t fit them in your cabinet. You start lining them up on your counter tops, or setting them up on your floor. What’s likely to happen? You’re going to start breaking them, and you’re going to get hurt. Only with PUFAs, it’s like dominoes. Once one shatters, it sets off a chain reaction where their broken shards keep damaging each other.

For this reason, we need an antioxidant system to protect them. And in fact, most plant oils that are rich in PUFAs are also rich in vitamin E. But is it enough to protect them? Animal studies suggest that over a number of years, a high-PUFA diet will saturate our adipose tissue — our deposits of body fat — with PUFAs, and our bodyfat will become a “sink” for vitamin E. So even though the oils are very high in vitamin E themselves, over the long-term, our blood levels of vitamin E will decline.

In both humans and animals, addition of PUFAs, including from fish oils, has been shown to increase short-term oxidative stress. The question is whether additional antioxidants can protect the oils. So far, studies have looked at the alpha-tocopherol form of vitamin E and have not shown a protective effect. The studies need to look at the protective effects of gamma-tocopherol, however, and vitamin C, and combinations of these antioxidants. They haven’t done that yet.

I think with present knowledge, we should aim to get some DHA from fish, but shouldn’t overload on it. I think 2-3 servings of salmon is fine. And we should eat that in the context of a diet rich in antioxidants for maximal protection. We should use nuts and seeds as side-dishes but not as a main source of calories, and we should avoid using their concentrated oils and instead focus on fats and oils rich in saturated and monounsaturated fats, like butter, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil, other animal fats, olive oil, and palm oil.

JOHN: Can you talk a little more about the role of arachidonic acid in the growth of new tissue?

CHRIS: When they first started studying essential fatty acid deficiency, they found that in addition to highly purified unnatural diets, they needed to use young, growing animals. When they used adult animals, it was impossible to induce essential fatty acid deficiency. They finally found a way, however, by emaciating the animals through starvation and then allowing them to grow back to their normal weight on a deficient diet. Then the symptoms — all of which were due to a deficiency of arachidonic acid — would set in. The reason is when you make new cells or expand the size of existing cells, the membranes have to grow. But the membranes need to contain a certain proportion of arachidonic acid as a reserve needed for cell signaling. Moreover, much of that arachidonic acid also gets used up when promoting healthy junctions between the cells that will be used for communication or for water-proofing the skin or allergen-proofing the digestive barrier. When you are not growing, the turnover of arachidonic acid is so small that it’s virtually impossible to achieve a deficiency on a whole-foods diet. But when you grow, the need for it kicks in and the whole slew of B vitamins, needed especially for converting all the food you eat into energy.

JOHN: What is your opinion of Omega 6 to 3 ratios in diets? That seems to be a hot topic in nutrition these days.

CHRIS: I think if you rely on plant oils to get your omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, the ratio becomes important, but if you get small amounts of arachidonic acid and DHA from fish and other animal fats, it becomes much less important. The ratio got attention when they provided the first ever case of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency by intravenously feeding seed oils into hospital patients. They thought that by adding oils rich in the omega-6 “essential fatty acid” linoleic acid, such as safflower and sunflower oil, they would be doing these patients well. But it turned out that the massive overload of omega-6 with no omega-3 depleted all the DHA in their nervous system. This is because the fatty acids from the omega-6 and omega-3 plant oils compete for the enzyme systems that turn them into the true essential fatty acids, arachidonic acid and DHA. If you are eating whole foods and are not a strict vegetarian, however, you will get preformed DHA and so the ratio becomes less important.

On the other hand, fish oils contain EPA in addition to DHA. EPA will only accumulate in cell membranes in very small proportions, but it is capable of interfering with arachidonic acid metabolism. Some people see this as a “good” thing, but they are thinking of it pharmacologically and not nutritionally. Arachidonic acid is necessary for tissue growth, for healthy skin, for healthy digestive function, for reproductive function, and for many other purposes. If you are eating a lot of fatty fish, it is important to also be eating liver and egg yolks, or at least meat and butter. Of course a semi-vegetarian willing to eat fish but not willing to eat meat can synthesize arachidonic acid from plant oils, but again this requires consuming a greater amount of PUFAs, which increase our vulnerability to oxidative stress.

JOHN: For those of us that train really hard, I mean push ourselves to the limit day in and day out, what would you suggest for combating free radicals and oxidative stress diet wise? Do you think the timing of these things is critical? For example, let’s say I just finished an insane leg workout, should I get the food you suggest in right away, or can it be any time of day?

CHRIS: I don’t think the timing is critical. There was a study where they gave people a drink with vitamins C and E or a placebo drink and had them drink it every day for a few months. Then they ran an intense marathon. During and after the marathon they weren’t allowed to drink anything but water. In the hours after the marathon the people who had been drinking the placebo drink had signs of oxidative damage — which again, is like things falling apart at the molecular level; like smashing important molecules apart the way you’d smash a glass if you dropped it on the floor — but the people who had been drinking the antioxidant drink did not. So it was the regular use of the antioxidants over an extended period of time and not an immediate post-exercise use of antioxidants that protected them.

There is definitely evidence that people who are “overtrained” have a condition of elevated oxidative stress. And it’s also true that the timing of your recovery drinks and meals becomes more important when you train very hard and very frequently. So if you are doing intense workouts twice a day, then it probably makes sense to get a hefty dose of antioxidants along with protein, carbohydrate, water, and other important elements of recovery soon after your first workout so you can recover in time for the second. But for most people, I think the primary concern is just getting a good diet day-in and day-out.

JOHN: You mentioned fear of fat initially when I asked you about common mistakes. Can you elaborate on that?

CHRIS: There is a fear of fat among bodybuilders and the general population. I once worked with a bodybuilder who would come into work in the morning and eat one or two dozen hardboiled eggs — but he would throw all the yolks away. Most of the nutrition is in the yolk! Egg yolks are a great, well-rounded multi-vitamin and if we throw all this nutrition away because we are avoiding fat and cholesterol, we’re going to get into trouble. Much of the carbohydrate we eat just get turned into fat anyway, so we should be seeking a balance between fat and carbohydrate.

JOHN: Throwing egg yolks away is a sin in my book 🙂

CHRIS: The Biblical Job may have agreed with you. In Job 6:6-7 he said, “Is tasteless food eaten without salt, or is there any flavor in the white of an egg? I refuse to touch it, for such foods make me ill.”

There’s a fear of saturated fat, specifically, that pervades our society. But research is showing that the saturated fats found in coconut oil boost fat loss when compared to the fats found in olive oil, the current darling of the nutrition establishment.

JOHN: Chris, I remember one of my favorite people in the world (Mary Enig) writing about this. Can you tell us a little bit more about the study? Many of my readers use coconut oil as a quick source of energy and as an immune system strengthener, but this would make the argument even stronger to use it year round for an athlete that wants to maintain lower bodyfat levels.

CHRIS: Marie-Pierre St-Onge from Columbia University and some of her colleagues have done a number of studies using MCT oil, which is derived from coconut oil. MCT stands for medium-chain triglyceride. Basically these are fats that are composed of smaller molecules than most other fats, and they constitute the majority of fatty acids in coconut oil. They are digested more easily because they don’t require bile acids and they go straight to the liver for metabolism instead of through the lymph like other fats. And they slip into the mitochondria where they will be burnt for energy easily without any need for assistance, whereas the other fats have to be actively shuttled into the mitochondria. Unlike other fats, their metabolism isn’t suppressed by carbohydrate. So if you eat a mix of carbohydrate and fat, you are going to be more likely to burn that fat for energy if it’s medium-chain.

All of this was known from basic biochemistry but St-Onge and her colleagues showed that it’s physiologically relevant in humans. In a 2008 study, they put men on an 1800 calorie weight loss diet and women on a 1500 calorie weight loss diet. They gave them muffins made with either MCT oil or olive oil so that the particular oil constituted 12% of their calories. After 16 weeks, the men and women who were fed the MCT oil lost more than twice as much weight as the men and women who were fed the olive oil.

No one has studied coconut oil directly, but since coconut oil is primarily MCT’s, it should produce similar results. And it may be the case that going up a little higher in the percentage of calories produces even better results — but until the studies come in, people are going to have to use trial and error to experiment with this and see what works best for them. The important thing to remember is that you have to replace some of your calories with coconut oil, and not just add coconut oil to your diet. St-Onge’s studies suggest that the “a calorie is a calorie” myth is just that — a myth — but “calories don’t count” is another myth. If you add a jar of coconut oil per day to your diet you’ll probably gain weight. But if you go on a weight loss diet and replace some of the calories you would otherwise have consumed from other foods with coconut oil, you’ll probably get much better weight loss results.

Many of the vitamins and minerals needed to enhance fat loss or boost muscle mass can be found in fruits and vegetables, but many of them are found primarily in animal products, so the fat-phobia doesn’t help in this area either.

JOHN: What are your 3-4 favorite fruits and veggies?

CHRIS: My favorite fruits are strawberries and bell peppers (orange are my favorite color) and my favorite vegetables are broccoli and kale. Strawberries and bell peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C, aren’t terribly high in sugar, and are easy to eat raw. Strawberries as a sweet treat and bell peppers as, for example, a topping on salad. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale are good sources of many vitamins and minerals but they especially stand out as the few good plant sources of calcium. The bioavailability of calcium from these foods surpasses that of pasteurized milk — something that can’t be said for other vegetables like spinach. But there are many great plant foods out there and certainly it is a tough choice to pick out four of them.

JOHN: I am going to throw out some words, just tell me in one sentence what comes to mind:

Pasteurized milk

CHRIS: The bioavailability of the nutrients are seriously compromised, and the nature of the food is obscured by science that seeks to quantify concentrations of vitamins and minerals instead of quantifying their biological activity.

The Lipid Hypothesis

CHRIS: Elements of truth and falsehood; a disease of degenerating lipid was mistaken for a disease of infiltrating lipid.

Lipid expert

CHRIS: A term that makes some sense but is vulnerable to being abused in the logical fallacy of appealing to authority rather than appealing to the strength and clarity of an argument.

Coconut Macaroons

CHRIS: Delicious!


CHRIS: Life-giving in many ways that go beyond the most obvious, vitamin D.


CHRIS: The most important exercise (but the one I’ve always had the most trouble increasing my weight on!)

Peanut Butter

CHRIS: A good treat now and then if it’s quality peanut butter that isn’t loaded with aflatoxin or hydrogenated oils.

JOHN: Chris, you know we have to talk about cholesterol, but that is a big discussion for a later day!!

CHRIS: Indeed, and I look forward to it!

JOHN: Chris, so any general advice you would like to give our readers for the grand finale?

CHRIS: Let’s return to real food. Get to know the companies that produce your food and when possible buy local and get to know the farmers. Good farmers are nutrition-conscious and begin with respecting and nourishing the soil, and in turn respect and nourish their animals on their natural diets. Their cows eat grass and their chickens scratch in the dirt for insects. Always listen to both sides of a nutritional argument and make a personal decision about what makes the most sense to you; listen to your body and reject a theory when your body tells you it isn’t working. Use the help of doctors, trainers, researchers, writers, and speakers with gratitude, but become the slave of no one. Eat everything with thankfulness and when you are in good health, pay the favor forward by helping others when they will accept it. I think this is an excellent nutritional code to live by, and one whose principles extend far beyond the sphere of nutrition.

JOHN: Thank you Chris, I know that our readers will really appreciate the valuable and applicable information you shared today!, as I have…and stay tuned everybody for part II – A discussion on cholesterol!

CHRIS: You’re welcome John, and thank you so much for the opportunity. It was a pleasure and I look forward to our next interview.

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