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What is CLA, its Benefits, and Where to Find It

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Learn all about CLA. Where to find it and all of it's benefits.

What is it?

Everyone seems to be looking for a way to get rid of body fat these days. With approximately 70% of people in the United States currently considered overweight, we are desperate to understand what is happening and how we can reduce our body fat.
There are many studies that show that conjugated linoleic acid can actually reduce fat mass in the body and also help to increase lean body mass.
 

What is Conjugated Linoleic Acid?

Conjugated linoleic acid, also known as CLA, is a fatty acid that is found in beef, full-fat dairy, butter, and cheese products. The CLA found in these foods, however, is often quite low. Obtaining the right amount needed for fat loss through foods can be difficult, which is why many people from bodybuilders to people looking for its weight loss effects, have turned to CLA in supplement form. Not only are the amounts very low in foods, the foods that contain them are high in saturated fat.

The way that cattle are raised is much different from how it used to be in history. Cattle used to be allowed to graze the grass in pastures. However, with modern meat production, cows are often fed processed grains instead of natural grasses. This has a negative effect on the nutrients that we receive when we eat beef. The amount of CLA is diminished to levels much lower than people used to receive in history from eating beef. The same thing has happened to our other sources of CLA. Because of mass production of foods, many of our foods are highly processed which reduces the amount of nutrients in our foods. CLA is an important fatty acid that we need in our diets, that is highly influential in weight and muscle maintenance.

Many people ask how conjugated linoleic acid, as a fatty acid, can actually help reduce fat or improve lean body mass. At first, it sounds counterintuitive. Most people think of heart attacks and being overweight when someone mentions fat.

For many years, we have been told to restrict fat from our diets as a way to lose weight. However, the more fat free foods we eat, the fatter we keep getting. We need to ditch the old myths about fats are begin to embrace fat in our diets. Research is showing us that fat is actually not the "bad guy" for our diets. The right kinds of fats are actually good for the brain, raise energy levels, reduce cancer risk, produce stronger bones, help people to gain and retain more muscle, lower the risk of depression, improve skin, reduce inflammation, help with muscle movement, assist in weight loss, and enhance vitamin absorption.

Not all fats are good fats, however. "Good" fats are monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fats, and unsaturated fats. "Bad" fats are called trans fats (chemically-produced fats). Saturated fat can be both good and bad, as we do need some saturated fat in our diets, but in moderation.

Although fats all have a similar chemical makeup, even small differences in the structure can have a significant difference in how our bodies process them.

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Bad Fats

One of the worst things that you can put in your body is something that is not natural or chemically produced. Trans fats are just those things. They are chemically created through a process known as hydrogenation. The process takes liquid fat and chemically processes them to turn them into a solid. Food producers are well-intentioned when they do this, at least in terms of business sense, as it helps to preserve the fat for longer and enhance the shelf life. However, it can have terrible effects on the human body when consumed. Trans fats clog the arteries and are not easily digested in the body. They raise your bad, LDL, cholesterol levels, raise risk of heart disease and stroke, and can increase risk of type 2 diabetes. Common foods with trans fats include margarine, peanut butter (except for all-natural peanut butter), vegetable shortening, donuts, fast food, tortillas, and cake frosting.

 

Good Fats

You should be getting most of your fat from good fats, such as polyunsaturated, unsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. Foods high in these types of fats include nuts, seeds, avocados, canola oil, olive oil, and fish. Omega-3 fatty acids should also be included as well: fatty fish, walnuts, and flax seed. These types of fats are necessary for the body and also healthy.

 

Where does CLA fit in?

CLA is actually a type of polyunsaturated fat, a good fat. It is considered an essential fat because it is one that we have to obtain through our diets and cannot be produced on its own. Essential fats that must come from our diets include polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids (nuts, seeds, vegetable oil) and omega-3 fatty acids (fish, eggs, nuts). According to research, CLA has been shown to have some incredible effects on the body from building muscle to fighting cancer. "We really believe this is promising," says lead researcher Jean-Michel Gaullier, Ph.D., with the Scandinavian Clinical Research Group.

 

History/Background

Although conjugated linoleic acid is just starting to become a known to the general public, research has been conducted on to uncover the benefits and uses of CLA for many decades. One of the earliest studies performed was in 1979: “The biological activity of CLA was noted by researchers in 1979 who found it to inhibit chemically induced cancer in mice and research on its biological activity has continued." Many more studies have been performed since that time unveiling benefits from weight loss to enhanced immune function. The United States Food and Drug Administration categorized CLA safe in 2008.

Some of the benefits of conjugated linoleic acid include:

  • Cancer-fighting effects
  • Aid in weight loss
  • Bone-strengthening abilities
  • Muscle building effects
  • Reduced food allergies 
  • Growth support
  • Improved digestion
  • Reverse of atherosclerosis

What is the serving size/dose?

At this point, there is no officially recommended dosage for CLA. Many studies, however, show that men and women taking CLA get the best benefits from taking 152-212 milligrams per day. Research suggests that for reducing fat, the dose is higher, especially for obese patients, with the dose between 1.8-7 grams daily.

Conjugated linoleic acid is generally taken three times per day for maximum effects. Taking it before or with a meal will have the best effects.

 

How does CLA work?

The ideal diet would be to have equal amounts of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid. The average diet of someone living in the United States, however, is too high in omega-6s. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and omega-6s are inflammatory. In order to have the best balance for our systems, we need a balance of these two fats. Because Americans eat too many omega-6s that are from low-quality oils and limit their omega-3s, they have a risk for many diseases such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and depression.

CLA is an omega-6 fatty acid and linoleic acid is actually the primary omega-6 acid. This type of fat is going in a variety of different foods including vegetables, grains, and meats. Conjugated linoleic acid acts like an omega-3 acid in the body rather than like the omega-6 acid that it is. It actually works to lower inflammation in the body, promotes health, improves absorption of nutrients, and also helps control hunger.

CLA works in a few different ways in the body. Conjugated linoleic acid actually helps to prevent accumulation of fat in the cells. Fat usually enters the fat cells via the assistance of enzymes. CLA works to inhibit the enzyme lipoprotein lipase that would ordinarily help to get the fat into the fat cells. If the individual continues to take CLA, it can actually help to breakdown the fat because it activates noreprinephrine, which is a hormone that can assist in the burning of fat. Thirdly, research shows that CLA can actually kill fat cells (apoptosis). The effect of this is less fat cells in the body.

 

Benefits for Weight Loss and Bodybuilding

1) Weight Loss and Fat-Burning Power

Numerous studies show that CLA helps to improve fat loss in both animals and humans. It is quickly becoming one of the most popular of all of the weight loss supplements. According to a study that was published in the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, CLA had an impact on energy metabolism, adipogenesis, inflammation, fat metabolism, and apoptosis. Supplements that contain an equal amount of 10,12 isomers appear to be the ones that have the best fat loss effects from CLA. 18 studies were identified that showed an increase in lean body mass, with a decrease in fat mass. The study used purified trans-10, cis-12 isomers and the study showed a reduction in fat mass in humans.

2) Regulate Blood Sugar

Other research has shown that CLA may help with blood sugar regulation and improving insulin function. The best food sources for this are butter (full-fat butter, not margarine) and grass-fed beef. These foods have been shown to stabilize blood sugar due to the effects of CLA. Scientists are finding that one of the reasons for why Americans are so overweight is because they eat a lot of foods that raise their blood sugar, such as sugary treats, white bread, soda, French fries, and other foods that are high on the glycemic index. Eating foods that raise the blood sugar causes weight gain, especially abdominal fat accumulation. Adding in more foods that help to regular blood sugar and keep it from spiking has a positive effect on weight loss and weight maintenance.

3) Improved Muscle Strength

Research is also showing that conjugated linoleic acid taken alone or in combination with other supplements like protein powder can actually help increase muscle. Many bodybuilders are adding CLA to their supplementation regimen to improve their gains.

4) Immune System Improvement

CLA has been shown to improve immune system function. This is important for weight loss and strength training because dieting and exercising actually puts a lot of strain on the body. Many people who train hard complain of getting the flu and other illnesses easily because of the extra strain put on the body from training. A compromised immune system can cause a person to actually gain weight or not make the same amount of gains from strength training. Taking care of one's immune system can help to improve weight loss and training by allowing the body to focus on the process of weight loss or strength gains instead of focusing its energy on fighting disease.

5) Pre-Workout Benefits

Although non-stimulating, CLA can be helpful to add as a pre-workout supplement. CLA support muscle mass, energy creation, promotes fat loss, and assists with metabolism.

 

Best Sources of CLA

According to research, the best sources of CLA from food include:
  • Full-fat dairy including milk, yogurt, cream, and cheeses
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Butter from cows that are grass-fed
  • Supplementation
When seeking sources of CLA from whole foods, look for grass-fed beef and full-fat dairy products. Cows that are not fed grass will not produce milk that is high in CLA and will not be high in CLA to eat as a meat. There are many places to buy grass-fed products and many health and whole foods stores carry these items.
 

When to Supplement

Oftentimes the best sources of nutrients come from whole foods because the effects of individual elements in our foods are best when taken in combination with the rest of the elements. However, at times we cannot get enough of the nutrient that we need from the whole food item.

Many whole foods do not contain enough CLA to have the benefits needed, such as when someone is trying to lose weight or gain muscle, or when someone needs to take CLA for its cancer-fighting properties. Supplementation is also done when there is a risk of getting too much of another element that when taken in amounts that are too high can actually be harmful, such as the saturated fat contained in beef. If you are unable to find meats and dairy products from grass-fed cows, supplementation can be a viable option.

Always follow the instructions and seek the guidance of a physician before supplementing if you have health issues such as cardiovascular or diabetic challenges. CLA supplements are well-tolerated and the benefits of taking CLA far out way any risks of taking them.

 

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