By Kelly Aleman, RD/LD

Brought to you by Florida East Coast Runners

Many athletes are confused when it comes to defining the role of dietary fats in their nutrition game plan. A common dietary mistake by well-meaning athletes relates to the avoidance of fat for improving their health and/or lowering their body fat. A few years ago, we were advised to avoid fat like the plague. However, today we hear it is appropriate to balance fat into our diets.

Fat is a concentrated source of energy that helps athletes who expend high amounts of energy to fuel themselves adequately. Without dietary fat, it would be difficult to consume enough calories to maintain strength and stamina. In addition to providing calories, dietary fat is needed to replenish intramuscular fat stores (fat that is stored within the muscle and is used to fuel extended exercise). Dietary fat is also needed to absorb certain vitamins and food components, it is important for mental health and it also enhances food's flavor and texture. The goal of the following article is to help clarify some facts about including fats in an athlete's sports diet.

Are fats fattening?

Too many calories of any kind- from protein, fat, or carbohydrate are fattening. For weight control, your best bet is to count total calorie intake, not just fats. Excess calories of fat can be easy to over-consume since fatty foods taste good and it is easy for our body to convert excess calories of fat into body fat. However, including some fat with each meal can help curb the appetite since it takes longer to digest fat than carbohydrates. The bottom line is: cutting any type of calories can create a calorie deficit and result in weight loss.

If I eat fat will I increase my risk of heart disease?

This depends on what type of fat you eat. For health reasons, you want to include more of the unsaturated fats from plant sources, nuts, olive and canola oil, and fatty fish like salmon and tuna. In contrast, you want to avoid excess amounts of saturated fats found in meats, butter whole dairy products and commercial baked goods. Saturated fats increase our risk of heart disease but when we use unsaturated fats appropriately they can actually improve our lipid profiles and help prevent the risk of heart disease.

Also, it is important to limit processed foods such as refined crackers, commercial baked goods, and stick margarines that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oils among the ingredients on the food label. Hydrogenation is a process that converts the good oil into harder fats that resemble characteristics more like the saturated fats.

Heart disease is associated not only with dietary fat but with triglycerides. These are fats that circulate in our bloodstream and provide energy for our body. They are elevated from dietary factors such as fatty foods, excess sugary foods and alcohol. People who consume a high carbohydrate diet (from simple sugars such as hard candies, fat-free cookies and frozen yogurt) can have high triglycerides.

How much dietary fat is too much?

The typical American diet includes about 34% of calories from fat. The American Heart Association recommends a diet in which total fat is restricted to less than 30% of calories. Saturated fat needs to account for less than 10% of those calories and the rest from unsaturated fats particularly monounsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils.

A popular belief among health conscious athletes is if low fat is better then no fat must be better. This however is not the case. Some studies have shown that runners who typically eat an extremely low fat diet (16% calories from fat) have decrease running endurance and a depressed immune system. When these runners added more fat into their diets (up to 30%) their running endurance improved as well as their blood lipid profiles. Their triglyceride levels actually showed improvement and so did their HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Hence, the extra effort to restrict fat may not only be less beneficial but also counterproductive.

What's an easy way to reduce dietary fat?

Please note that low-fat differs from no fat. A low-fat diet with approximately 25-30% of calories from fat allows most healthy athletes a range of 50-80 grams of total fat per day. However, the important focus of a low-fat diet is to watch out for the harmful saturated fats. By choosing fewer fatty meats, greasy chips, butter and fatty processed snack foods you can reduce your fat intake to an appropriate level. Instead, include lots of fruits/vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, soy products and other unsaturated fats to enhance your heart health.

The bottom line: Athletes can and should balance an appropriate amount of fat into their daily diet. Severely restricting our fat intake can lead to decreased athletic performance as well as unfavorable lipid profiles. It is important to learn how to include the heart healthy fats into our eating plans and minimize the damaging saturated fats.

We are fortunate to have someone with Kelly's credentials and experience willing to donate her time to help educate us on the important subject of nutrition. She is a registered and licensed dietician in private practice in Melbourne. Her primary counseling focus is to provide personalized exercise nutrition consultation for athletes of all abilities, regardless of their sport. Kelly is available for individual counseling by appointment at 728-7782.

Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Kelly Aleman.  Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

More Articles at