In the world of sports and athletic performance, every advantage matters, and nutrition plays a pivotal role in achieving peak results. In fact, understanding the importance of fats for athletes can help you achieve your fitness goals and improve your health.
Athletes often focus on macronutrients like proteins and carbohydrates, but it’s time to shine some focus on fats and the importance beyond any athlete’s concern about fat contributing to weight gain.
In this blog post, I’ll shed light on the often-overlooked importance of fats for athletes, offering valuable insights that can empower you on your journey towards peak performance and overall well-being.
You’ll learn not only why fats matter for athletes but also how much you need, the best types of fats and practical ways to incorporate them into your diet.
Why are fats important for athletes?
Fats play a crucial role in many of your body’s processes that affect athletic performance and health. Some of the benefits showing the importance of fats for athletes are:
Fats are the primary fuel for light to moderate intensity exercise. During prolonged lower intensity exercise, fats can provide more than twice the amount of energy per gram (9 calories per gram) than carbohydrates or protein, which each provide 4 calories per gram, and can spare muscle glycogen
Additionally, fats can help maintain blood glucose levels, help you feel full and prevent hypoglycemia, which can impact cognitive and motor skills.
Fats are essential for the production of some hormones that regulate metabolism, muscle growth and recovery. They help control cortisol, a stress hormone that can increase muscle breakdown and inflammation.
Fats act as a cushion for your organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys protecting them from injury. Your body relies on fats to help regulate body temperature and prevent heat loss, which can affect performance and health in cold environments.
Fats help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin A, D, E, and K, which support various functions, such as vision, bone health, immune system and blood clotting.
They also enhance the bioavailability of antioxidants, such as carotenoids and polyphenols, which can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.
How much fat do athletes need?
There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation, but generally athletes should be between 20-35% of your total calorie intake.
The amount of fat that athletes need depends on several factors, such as their body composition, training intensity, duration and goals. For example, an athlete gearing up for a long distance run or intense two a day practices may need more carbohydrates in their meals for loading energy stores.
Best type of fats for athletes
Not all fats are created equal. Some fats have health benefits, while others should be eaten less frequently. Here is a brief overview of the different types of fats so you can understand the importance of fats for athletes and their effects on health and performance :
Saturated fats are in animal products such as meat, dairy and egg and some plant oils such as coconut and palm oil. They are solid at room temperature and have a high melting point.
You should consume saturated fats in moderation, since they can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Athletes should limit their saturated fat intake to less than 10% of their total calories.
Monounsaturated fats are in plant oils such as olive, canola and peanut oil and nuts, seeds, and avocados. They are liquid at room temperature and have a lower melting point than saturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats have the most health benefits and are the healthiest type of fat, because they can lower blood cholesterol levels, improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation.
Athletes should aim for 10-15% of their total calories from monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are in plant oils such as soybean, corn and sunflower oil and fish, and seafood. They are liquid at room temperature and have the lowest melting point of all fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential for the body because they provide omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which support your brain function, immune system and blood clotting.
These types of fats are called essential because your body needs them to function, but cannot make them, so you need to get them from foods. (1)
Athletes should aim for 5-10% of their total calories from polyunsaturated fats, with a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 of 1:4 or less. (2)
Trans fats are created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats, making them more solid and stable. They are in processed foods such as margarine, baked goods, and fried foods and some animal products such as dairy and meats.
Trans fats are the worst type of fat, as they can raise blood cholesterol levels and increase inflammation. Athletes should try to minimize the among of trans fats since they have no nutritional value and can impact health and performance.
Sources of dietary fats
Here are some examples of the types of dietary fats and the foods you can find them.
|Fat type||Food source|
|Saturated fats||butter, cheese, cream, bacon, sausage, beef, pork, chicken skin, coconut oil, palm oil|
|Monounsaturated fats||olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocado, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds|
|Polyunsaturated fats||soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, fish oil, salmon, tuna, mackerel, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds|
|Trans fats||margarine, baked goods, fried foods, some dairy and meat products|
Impact of a high fat diet
Other impacts from a high fat diet include:
- Chronic exhaustion
- Body fat percentage increases
- Muscle tissue decreases
- Increased potential for GI distress during physical activity such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting
- Increased risk for heart disease
A diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates slows the process of energy storage for muscles. Therefore you may have less fuel stored when it’s needed most for high intensity activities like an intense soccer match.
How to incorporate fats into your diet
Fats are an important part of a balanced diet, but you should focus on those with health benefits and limit those that less healthy. Here are some tips on how to incorporate fats into your diet as an athlete :
- Choose lean cuts of meat, skinless poultry, and low-fat dairy products to limit your saturated fat intake.
- Use plant oils such as olive, canola, or peanut oil for cooking and salad dressings and avoid deep-frying or using butter or lard.
- Eat fatty fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel at least twice a week to get enough omega-3 fatty acids
- Snack on nuts, seeds, and avocados, which are rich in monounsaturated fats and other nutrients, such as protein, fiber, and antioxidants.
- Read food labels and avoid foods that contain trans fats, hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Balance your fat intake with your carbohydrate and protein intake and adjust your portions according to your energy needs and goals.
Lower your saturated fat intake
- Choose foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, broiled, baked, poached and mashed
- Use sparingly saturated fats such as butter and margarine
- Avoid foods that are fried, breaded, crispy, sautéed
When is the best time to eat fats?
The best time to eat fats depends on several factors, such as the type of fat, the type of exercise and activity you’ll be doing and your individual needs. However, some general tips are:
- Avoid eating high-fat meals or snacks before, during or immediately after a workout or a game, as they can slow down digestion, cause stomach discomfort and interfere with the absorption of carbohydrates and protein, which are needed for energy and recovery.
- Eat fats earlier in the day, preferably at breakfast or mid-morning, as they can provide a steady source of energy, keep you satiated, and help avoid cravings later in the day.
- Eat healthy fats in moderation throughout the day, balancing them with carbohydrates and protein, and adjusting your portions according to your energy needs and goals. Fats can help you feel fuller for longer, which can prevent overeating and support weight management.
Fats are a vital component of an athlete’s diet. They provide energy, support hormone production, protect vital organs, and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
However, not all fats are equal, and you should choose the right types and amounts of fats to optimize your health and performance.
Make sure to incorporate healthy fats into your overall balanced meals plan.
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Steph Magill, MS, RD, CD, FAND has over 22 years of experience in public health and nutrition. As a performance registered dietitian nutritionist, Stephanie specializes in sports nutrition and provides simple and actionable information so that athletes can be well fueled for high performance on and off the field. Stephanie has a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.