An athlete’s guide to understanding dietary fat

Posted on February 18, 2020 by

It’s commonly understood that carbohydrates are the main fuel source for training and competition and protein is the key nutrient to aid muscle growth, repair and recovery. But what should athletes know about dietary fat?

Dietary fat is one of the four macronutrients (the others are carbohydrates, protein and alcohol), and it provides ~37 kilojoules/9 kilocalories, per gram. Dietary fat can be divided into four major categories:

  • Monounsaturated fats
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats

Each category has a different chemical structure and with that comes different impacts on body systems.

Athletes should focus on consuming mostly monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats as these are proven to provide a range of health and performance benefits.




Saturated and trans fats on the other hand are:

  • Harder to utilise as a fuel source
  • Have been shown to negatively impact the gut microbiome (richness & diversity), and
  • Have implications in cardiovascular disease

 

Food examples of monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats are listed below:

 

6 sources of monounsaturated fat

6 sources of polyunsaturated fat

Avocados Walnuts
Almonds Flaxseeds
Cashews Soybeans
Peanuts Fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel)
Extra virgin olive oil Tahini
Rice bran oil Brazil nuts

 

 

Why do athletes need dietary fat?

Athletes need dietary fat as it plays several roles in the body, from providing an energy source at lower exercise intensities to aiding the absorption of certain vitamins (specifically vitamins A,D, E & K), protecting vital organs and aiding hormone production.

Omega-3 is a specific type of polyunsaturated fat that is worth noting due to its potential ability to reduce inflammation. While athletes require some inflammation to maximise training adaptation, excess inflammation isn’t beneficial to either health or performance. Fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines are the most concentrated forms of omega-3, with some also found in plant sources like chia and flaxseeds.

 

How much dietary fat do I need to eat?

The current guidelines recommend that 20-35% of total energy (kilojoules/kilocalories) consumed comes from dietary fat, but the amount required will vary between individuals. For example, an athlete with a large training load may require a greater proportion of carbohydrates in their diet when compared to an athlete with a smaller training load. While quantities required may be variable, the key here is that every athlete needs to include fat in their diet.

 

When should I eat dietary fat?

While fat is a fundamental component of the athlete’s diet, the time of the day it is consumed should be considered based on training and competition schedules. As fat is slowly digested and used minimally during high intensity exercise, it does not make the ideal pre-training nutrient (this should be carbohydrates). Therefore, consuming fat in meals away from training is ideal e.g. nuts/seeds in your breakfast cereal or avocado on your sandwich at lunch.

 

Will eating dietary fat make me gain weight?

No, eating dietary fat will not make you gain weight. There is no single food that will do this. Weight gain comes from consuming an energy surplus, i.e. you consume more energy (kilojoules/kilocalories) than your body uses for normal bodily function and physical activity.

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