Athletes Need to Eat Fat!
Hi, my name is Karen and I'm a recovering non-fataholic. And I suspect I'm not alone. Does this sound familiar?
Breakfast: cereal with skim milk, banana, orange juice
Lunch: bagel, nonfat yogurt, pretzels, diet soda
Snack: energy bar, apple
Dinner: salad with nonfat dressing, pasta in tomato sauce, bread
Dessert: nonfat cookies, frozen yogurt
Or maybe you've been experiencing any or all of these scenarios: dozing at your desk in the afternoon, having those nagging hunger pangs between meals, fantasizing about pizza and cookies, feeling sluggish during long workouts.
I knew I wasn't alone.
But I Thought Carbs Were Good for Me?
Carbohydrates are good for us, and we need plenty of them—about 55%-65% of our total caloric intake. In fact, carbohydrate is the muscles' preferred energy source during endurance exercise, which is why it is essential to eat a high-carb diet.
But to maximize endurance, sports nutritionists advise that such a carbohydrate-rich diet should not be devoid of fat. In a study of trained runners, researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York came to a similar conclusion. After spending one month on each of three diets dubbed low-, medium-, and high-fat, runners worked out significantly longer before exhaustion set in when eating the medium-fat diet as compared with the low-fat diet. Athletes on the high-fat diet did not see any greater benefit.
In this study, the low- and medium-fat diets contained about 16% and 31% of calories from fat, respectively. Two main factors contributed to the enhanced endurance seen with the medium-fat diet—total calories and the fat itself.
Calories = Energy = Endurance
"Runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes have very high energy needs," notes Suzanne Nelson Steen, DSc, RD, sports nutritionist for the University of Washington's athletic teams, "and it can be difficult to meet those needs on a fat-restricted diet."
During the low-fat diet phase of the Buffalo study, athletes not only ate less fat, they also consumed almost 20% fewer total calories than during the medium-fat phase.
"Since an equal amount of fat provides more than twice as many calories as carbohydrate," explains Steen, "eating fat is an efficient way for athletes to meet their high energy needs. More available energy can lead to enhanced performance."
Fat to Fuel Muscles
While hard-working muscles are hungry for the calories that fat provides, they are also hungry for the fat itself. "Some dietary fat is stored within muscle fibers," explains Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook . "This intramuscular fat is a valuable source of fuel during endurance exercise."
Through training, we improve our muscles' abilities to burn fat. Therefore, as fitness increases, we still burn more carbohydrate than fat, but fat plays more of a role, both by providing energy and, perhaps more importantly, by conserving precious carbohydrate stores for that big hill coming up at mile 20.
The high-pretzel, low-peanut diets that most of us fat avoiders pride ourselves on may be leaving us short on muscle-bound fat, forcing the body to depend solely on quickly depleted carbohydrate stores. Essentially, the more intramuscular fat we have to draw on, the longer we can exercise before exhaustion sets in. Clark and Steen agree that athletes should strive for about 25% of calories from fat. That's about 67 grams on a 2400 calorie per day diet.
Eating Fat Without Getting Fat
"If I eat fat I will get fat." This is the fat phobic's mantra. But it's not true, says Clark.
We will only gain weight if we consume more calories—regardless of the food package they come in—than we expend. Actually, many of us who shun fat may not be eating enough calories to meet our high energy needs; by adding a little fat, we'll increase our calorie intake to where it should be. This is what researchers theorized was the case in the Buffalo study, since athletes did not gain weight when they consumed the medium-fat diet.
By allowing a little fat onto our plates, we may also find that those nagging hunger pangs subside. Fat-restricted diets also tend to be low in protein, which, like fat, induces satiety. "Many athletes walk around feeling hungry all day," says Steen. "But, eat some peanut butter or low-fat yogurt instead of the nonfat variety, and you have a little more flavor and a little more satisfaction after lunch, which keeps you from nibbling all afternoon."
Choose Your Fats Wisely
While we need fats to provide calories, certain fat-soluble vitamins (especially vitamin E), and essential fatty acids, we are also aware that all fats are not created equal. The key is balance.
The level recommended by Clark, Steen, and other sports nutrition experts—25% of total calories as fat, with less than 10% from saturated fat—is below the 30% and 10% limits advised by the American Heart Association.
Since trans fatty acids are the most damaging to the heart, athletes should limit their intake of the following:
- Fried foods
- Other foods with hydrogenated oils
Saturated fats such as that found in beef and milk may not be as harmful as once thought. Conversely, monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil and canola oil) have increasingly shown their value in promoting health. Polyunsaturated fats are also thought to be healthy. Foods that contain polyunsaturated fats include the following:
- Natural peanut butter
- Avocados (guacamole)
- Fatty fish
Overcoming Your Phobia
A fat phobia can be difficult to overcome, so start with small steps:
- Top your salad with low-fat dressing instead of nonfat dressing.
- Spread some peanut butter on an otherwise naked bagel or piece of toast or on fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, and celery.
- Make an omelet using the whole egg, not just the egg whites.
- Sprinkle low-fat ]]>cheese]]> on pasta, omelets, chili, stews, soups, casseroles, and similar dishes.
- Choose low-fat yogurt, cheese, salad dressing, cookies, and crackers instead of nonfat versions.
- Snack on peanuts , walnuts, pistachios, and other nuts. Watch your portion size here, since nuts pack a high-calorie punch for their size.
- Add some guacamole to a roll-up sandwich.
- Sauté vegetables in olive or canola oil instead of nonfat cooking spray.
- Eat fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines) once or twice a week.
- Treat yourself to one real cookie instead of six or eight nonfat ones.
Try some of these suggestions for a week or so and see if you notice a difference. Are you less hunger-crazed in the afternoon? Do you seem to have more energy during your workouts? Many of us recovering fat-phobics find that the answer to these questions is "yes."
American Dietetic Association
Dietitians of Canada
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American College of Sports Medicine. Summary Statement: Workshop on physical activity and public health. Sports Med Bull. 1993;28:7.
Clark N. Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 2nd edition. Human Kinetics; 1996.
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Horvath PJ, Eagen CK, Fisher NM, Leddy JJ, Pendergast DR. The effect of varying dietary fat on performance and metabolism in trained male and female runners. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000;19:42-60.
Nieman, DC. Nutrition and physical performance. In: Fitness and Sports Medicine: An Introduction . Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Company; 1990:221-269.
Last reviewed January 2009 by ]]>Jill D. Landis, MD ]]>
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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