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Fat: A Nutrient Often Misunderstood by Athletes

Carbohydrates (carbs) and protein get all the glory when athletes talk about sports nutrition. We know carbs are the nutrients that give us quick energy when training intensely and help us from “bonking” during endurance races. Protein is the nutrient that helps to rebuild and repair muscle cells after strenuous training, as well as helps to restore muscle glycogen when combined with carbs for recovery. But what about fat? We hear so many mixed messages about fat from “it raises your cholesterol”, to “it causes weight gain”. First let's learn more about the role of fat, how much to eat and types to add to your diet to stay healthy during training.

What role does fat during training?

Fat is necessary for our body as main energy source, protect our organs, necessary for nerve function, spares protein used as fuel, and is required to help transport fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Unlike carbs, we have unlimited stores of fat to use for energy during low-intense training. Exercising at approximately 50-60% of your max heart rate, uses approximately 50% fat and 50% carb (this can vary depending on your pre-workout meal and glycogen stores), but fat is the preferred fuel source for long, slower exercise.

But don’t forget, eating a high fat, low carb diet is not linked to faster training results. It has been shown that athletes following a low carb, high fat diet can burn more fat, but this also results in the decreased ability to use carbs during exercise causing early fatigue and inability to train at higher-intensities.

How much fat do you need?

The amount of fat you need varies depending on how much carbohydrate and protein you eat as well. If you are eating a higher carb diet, less energy is coming from fat. You need a minimum of 1 g/kg body weight. Meaning if you weigh 150# (68 kg), you need a minimum of 68 g of dietary fat daily.

Some sports dietitians recommend a percentage of your calories coming from fat ranging anywhere from 20-35%. But it’s important to remember if you eat too few calories from fat you are at risk of nutritional deficiencies from essential fats your body cannot make, such as linoleic acid (known as omega 6) and alpha-linolenic (known as omega-3) which can only come from food. Whereas, eating too many calories from fat can lead to eating too few calories from carbs, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, which can impact your heart health, digestion, immune health, and sports performance.

What types of fats should you eat?

Traditionally, sports dietitians have recommended to eat more healthy, unsaturated fats founds in nuts, seeds, oils, and in fatty fish and avocado. Eating a diet containing more omega-3 and monounsaturated fats can be helpful to lower cholesterol and inflammation.

Eating a high saturated fat diet can actually increase your insulin resistance (inability to process sugars from your diet possibly leading to metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes). Saturated fat has also been linked to increasing your risk of heart disease due to raising “bad” LDL cholesterol.

However, not all saturated fat has been tied to high cholesterol. According to a study in the International Journal of Cardiology, eating saturated fats found in dairy products may not produce the same effects of increased heart disease as seen in red and processed meats which have a greater association of having an increased risk of heart disease.

We need to remember to not just manipulate our intake of fats, carbs and protein based on the latest nutrition trends, but to better understand the importance of eating healthy fats to reduce our risk of heart disease and inflammation. It’s more important to balance the quantity and quality of fat to increase satiety, improve the flavor of our foods, and to obtain the essential fats required for our heart health and training.

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