When it comes to talking about what athletes should eat, carbohydrates and protein tend to steal all the attention. For good reason, those macronutrients are vital to providing energy for high-intensity performances and building strong, lean muscles. However, that only makes for part of the equation. There’s a third macro that deserves some of the spotlight: fat.
Fat has gotten a bad reputation for being calorically dense, with a whopping 9 calories per gram of fat (protein and carbs each provide 4 calories/gram) and being linked to poor cardiac health outcomes. However, it’s more complicated than that. In recent years, we’ve come to look beyond the negative to see the positives fat can offer.
Satiety is a big benefit fat offers. Those 9 calories per gram provide a very satisfying effect when consuming small volumes of food. Fat is also digested more slowly than other nutrients and secretes the hormone leptin that signals to the brain the body doesn’t need more fuel. This means adding a little fat to each meal can prevent hunger longer, which leads to consuming less overall and potentially leads to weight loss.
The keto diet, a diet with more than 60% of its calories coming from fat, is currently popular in the weight-loss community due to the eating style’s ability to create a fullness that prevents overeating. This could be a helpful eating strategy for those exercising with the goal of reducing bodyweight.
Fats also assist with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Pairing fats with vegetable-heavy meals ensures your body is able to get the most out of those colorful foods. Another role of fats is to create flexible cell membranes which are better at being agile and resisting athletic injury.
Carbohydrates are undoubtedly the gold standard for fueling short, fast, repetitive bursts of intensity. The more intense a workout is, the more the body utilizes carbohydrates as a primary energy substrate. However, when that intensity dips to a maintainable tempo or recovery pace, fat becomes the fuel of choice. For endurance athletes doing longer, slower efforts, fat intake should make up a larger part of performance fueling. Consuming fats during endurance and ultra-endurance efforts helps provide slow-burning fuel, keeping blood glucose levels stable and preventing energy crashes during these prolonged sessions.
Fats are advised to make up roughly 30% of the diet when it comes to the general population. Of course athletes are not the general population. Athlete’s should first meet their carbohydrate and protein needs, which are set at grams per kilogram depending on training hours and goals. Once those needs are met, athletes can fill in the remaining caloric gap with fats.
Depending on an athlete’s total energy requirements, fat might make up more or less than that 30% standard. Of the fats consumed, athletes should take the same care in selecting health-promoting, high-quality ingredients as they do with other food groups. For example, choosing grass-fed or pasture-raised items can provide a better fat profile in animal products. Instead of getting fats from processed, sugary sources like baked goods, athletes should add nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, full-fat dairy and fish. It is important to note that many foods not thought of as ‘fatty foods’ still contain fat, such as oatmeal.
Whether you’re following a keto-style diet, or simply watching your macros, fat is integral to performance fueling. Basically, regardless of which eating style you’re following, it is important athletes do not fear fat and work to choose fat sources that also provide nutrients to promote overall health.