Most athletes are aware of the importance of carbohydrate and protein for performance. Carbohydrate is the body’s main fuel source for exercise, hence “carb loading,” and protein helps build and repair muscles. But what about fat? It’s rarely talked about in sports nutrition, which could lead one to assume it isn’t important. In reality, fat is a vital nutrient when it comes to athletic performance! Here are a few quick fat facts:
First, a quick primer on fat basics. Fat is one of the three macronutrients, along with carbohydrate and protein. It plays many vital roles, including allowing the body to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Including fat at meals helps keep you satisfied and maintains blood sugar until the next time you eat. Fat also provides the building blocks for hormones. Certain kinds of fat, like omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fats, have anti-inflammatory benefits. Last but not least, cooking with fat also makes food taste great!
While you may think of carbohydrates as fuel for exercise, so is fat. A combination of body fat (the tissue) and dietary fat are the main sources of fuel for long duration, medium-intensity exercise. Think marathons or swimming. During short duration, high-intensity exercise, fat is still needed to help your body access glucose stored in the liver as glycogen.
Fat’s role in hormonal health is especially important for athletes and active people. Exercise may have stress-relieving benefits, but it’s actually a stressor! That doesn’t mean exercise is bad for you – part of exercise’s benefits stem from the body recovering from the acute stress of exercise. BUT, your body needs the systems in place to be able to recover. This is where hormonal health comes in, as hormones help regulate stress. Because fats are energy dense and play such a vital role in hormonal health, it is an important nutrient that should be emphasized. This is especially important for active women, as physical activity without the adequate fuel can significantly impact fertility and hormonal health. In fact, the prevalence of amenorrhea (loss of a period) in female athletes who are in sports that emphasize leanness is almost 70%. Hormonal imbalances are also common in non-competitive athletes and exercise enthusiasts as well.
Fat for Recovery
Fat also helps aid in post-exercise recovery. Exercise causes damage and inflammation in muscles, and anti-inflammatory fats help the body heal and recover. Look for foods high in omega-3 or monounsaturated fats, like fatty fish, avocado, walnuts, flax, and olive oil. Try a recovery smoothie with flaxseeds, or top your post-workout with sliced avocado!
How Much Fat do I Need?
That said, there are times where less fat is better, like before a race, performance, or competition. A high-fat meal might cause digestive upset – not exactly what you want to feel going into mile 9! While there’s no need to eliminate fat entirely, be sure not to eat a meal that has more fat than your body is used to. Think spaghetti and tomato sauce with chicken and spinach sautéed in olive oil, or a sandwich and salad with a drizzle of regular dressing.
How much fat each person needs varies, based on level and type of activity, genetics, sex, body size, and other factors. And of course, we don’t need the same amount of fat every day! If you’re unsure if you’re getting adequate fat, be sure to work with a registered dietitian who can take a look at your eating habits and suggest modifications. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you have at least one source of fat at each of your meals. So don’t be afraid to drizzle that olive oil, sprinkle those nuts, and smash up that avocado!
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