Athlete’s Guide to Eating Fats

I am sure there are a lot of questions on your mind about dietary fat like: Is there really such a thing as “good” fats and “bad” fats? How can the different sources of dietary fats affect your athletic performance? Will eating dietary fats make me fat? 

What is dietary fat?
Dietary fats are energy-dense nutrients that provide the necessary essential fatty acids that the body can not produce, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Dietary fats are necessary for the body to function properly through many different processes like joint lubrication and nutrient absorption, both of which are crucial to athletes. 

Dietary fat does come in “good” and “bad” forms, based on what they do for the body and how they affect its functioning. “Good” dietary fats are those that assist the body in its ability to function, reduce the risk of disease and illness, and aid in the fueling of muscles. The types of “good” dietary fats are those categorized as unsaturated fats. “Bad” dietary fats are those that increase the risk of disease and illness, create inflammation in the body, and reduce the energy availability. The types of “bad” dietary fats are saturated and trans fats. 

Related: Nutrition for Athletes: Overview

Why do you need dietary fat?
“Good” dietary fats are necessary for the body in many ways. At the simplest level, fat helps keep the body warm, which is necessary for normal functions such as metabolizing foods. Fats also provide protection to the organs from external damage – which comes in handy, especially in contact sports. On a cellular level, fats help support cellular functions and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, & K that are needed for physiological processes like vision, bone health, and blood coagulation. 

The consumption of “good” dietary fats is able to aid the body in warding off diseases such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes. They have also been found to regulate the levels of inflammation that occurs in the body after exercise-induced damage has occurred. If muscles maintain a high level of inflammation, they are not able to heal properly, which can increase the risk of injury and inhibit muscle growth. Fats also help to regulate the production of reproductive and steroid hormones that are necessary in muscle growth and repair as well as proper body functioning, especially in female menstrual cycles. 

Related: Fueling Your Body for Performance

Fat as Fuel
While carbohydrates are a main fuel source for student-athletes, they are mostly useful for short-burst movements and weight training sessions. Fats, on the other hand, are a useful fuel source for endurance-based sports and light to moderate intensity training. This comes in handier as the student-athlete becomes more efficient in their sport, as they will be able to operate at a lower intensity while still completing the same degree of work or speed, aka metabolic efficiency.  

Fat also helps to fuel our muscles by providing energy and allowing the body to use carbohydrates more efficiently during training or a game. The more fat in our muscles, the longer we are able to train before getting tired, as the body will draw on the fat before depleting the stored carbohydrates.

Related: Carbohydrates: What They Are, and Why Athletes Need Them

Types and sources of dietary fat?

Unsaturated Fats
Unsaturated Fats are considered to be the “good” dietary fats, due to their ability to help improve cholesterol and lower inflammation in the body. These fats can be recognized by their ability to remain liquid at room temperature. They come in two forms: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. 

  1. Monounsaturated fats are fat molecules that have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule (aka Omega-9 fatty acids). They are the healthiest fats you can consume. Monounsaturated fats can help lower your cholesterol, thus decreasing your risk for a heart attack or stroke. They also provide the necessary nutrients to help the body develop and maintain its cells. They are found in high concentrations in plant-based liquids such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil. Monounsaturated fats can also be found in foods such as olives, avocados, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, & pecans) and seeds (pumpkin & sesame). 
  1. Polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules with more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. These dietary fats have been found to decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes, help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, & K, and support cell function. Many of the oils and foods rich in polyunsaturated fats provide the essential fats that the body needs but is unable to produce. These essential fats are referred to as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. 
    1. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to the human cell membranes, they help support mental health function, decrease liver fat, and fight inflammation in the body. They can be found mainly in oily fish sources such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. They can also be found in oily foods such as chia seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds. 
    2. Omega-6 fatty acids provide energy and immune support but should not be consumed more than Omega-3s as this can lead to an increase in inflammation in the body. Sources for Omega-6s are refined vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn, or soybean. They are also found in many nuts and seeds like sunflower seeds, almonds, and cashews. 

Saturated Fats
Saturated Fats are usually solid at room temperature. These fats are known to increase cholesterol levels, reduce insulin sensitivity, and increase inflammation in the body. Due to its negative effects on the body, these fats are typically referred to as “bad” fats and you should therefore limit their consumption. Some sources of saturated fats are beef, lamb, pork, skin of poultry, lard, butter, cheese, ice cream, coconut oil, palm oil, and some fried foods. 

Trans Fats come into two forms: naturally occurring and artificial. The naturally occurring trans fats, or ruminant fats, are made in the gut of animals and are found in the foods made from these, such as milk. Artificial trans fats, also known as industrial trans fats, are created through a process called hydrogenation, where hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to preserve them and have them maintain a solid state at room temperature. You would know this source as partially hydrogenated oils, which are used to cook many fried foods. Trans fats are not good for your health as they raise bad cholesterols and lower good cholesterol levels in the blood. It is also important to note that artificial trans fats are hazardous to your health due to the chemically altered state they come in. 

How much fat do you need?
Dietary fat is a highly energy dense nutrient as it contains 9 calories per gram vs the 4 calories per gram that protein and carbohydrates provide. According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and American Dietetic Association, student-athletes should seek to consume 20-25% of their daily calories from fat. The American Heart Association suggests that of the 20-25% of daily intake, approximately 15-20% should come from unsaturated sources and 5-6% comes from saturated fats. Trans fat consumption should be kept at the minimal amounts that occur naturally in dairy and animal food sources. 

To determine how much dietary fat you should consume, you will need to determine your daily caloric intake. The most acceptable method to do this is by tracking your food for several days to see approximately how many calories you consume daily while maintaining your current weight. 

Once you have determined your daily caloric intake, you will run the numbers as follows: 

Step 1:
Daily Calorie Intake x 20% = x calories from fat for 20% intake
Daily Calorie Intake x 25% = x calories from fat for 25% intake           
This will give you your range of calories per day that will come from fat.
Step 2:
x calories from fat for 20% intake/(9 cal/g) = 20% calories in grams
x calories from fat for 25% intake/(9 cal/g) = 25% calories in grams
This will give you your range of grams per day of fat to be consumed.

As always, these numbers are just a starting point. You might find that you function better on lower dietary fats or higher ones. Also, your sport and training style will play a factor in the amount of dietary fats you should consume. 

A final note: Eating fats in limited quantities will not make you fat. Instead, it will help your body’s overall functioning. The only way that eating dietary fats, or any food for that matter, will make you “fat” is by overconsumption beyond the daily caloric needs of your body to maximize strength, performance, and energy needs. 

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