If you're confused about how much fat you should be eating and which are considered "good" or "bad," you're not alone. No matter how much you try to make sense of all the information out there about fat, deciding how to balance those fats in your diet to provide you with the energy and health benefits you need, without increasing the risk of heart disease, is a tough call.
Without some fat in your diet, you can't transfer vitamins A, D, E, and K as well as many of the beneficial compounds found in fruits and veggies, such as carotenoids. Not essential to life, but also important, body fat helps to insulate your body when it's cold; it acts as a cushion around your organs to help protect them in contact sports or if you take a blow to your body. Ever wonder how your kidneys, heart, stomach, or liver would fare in any type of contact sport without having subcutaneous and visceral body fat to protect them? Or what diving into cold water would feel like without having some subcutaneous insulation?
Your body's stored fat, triglycerides are essentially like an unlimited fuel tank for you to tap into during exercise. Even lean adult athletes have 70,000 to 100,000 calories—about 120 hours of running at a marathon pace—stored in fat cells, muscles, and circulating in the bloodstream. That's about 700 to 800 miles worth of running, more than enough calories to fuel you from San Diego to San Francisco. Compare that to about 2,000 calories worth of carbs that the body can store when the muscles, liver, and blood are fully carbo-loaded—that's equal to about 90 minutes of marathon pace running. If the human body could use only fat for fuel, we would not have to worry about carbs, but since fat requires oxygen to be oxidized for fuel, it can supply the lion's share of energy for low-intensity exercise; but as oxygen becomes limited, carbohydrates become the major fuel source. Unless you want to exercise like a tortoise, you still need a high-carbohydrate diet to fuel your sports.
Numerous studies have been conducted to determine if athletes can "fat-load" their diets to maximize fat oxidation during exercise to try to spare the limited carbs the body has stored as glycogen. While an interesting concept, few of the studies found any beneficial effects of fat-loading or taking medium-chain triglycerides or showed any benefits in performance. However, it is now known that athletic training increases the body's ability to oxidize fat during exercise, so that the more fit athletes are, the more fatty acid they burn as fuel. Bottom line: to burn more fat as fuel, keep training.
Fat is the most energy-dense of the three macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), which is why sports nutritionists have typically recommended limiting fat for anyone trying to lose weight and why we use it to boost the calorie content with athletes who have a hard time meeting their caloric requirements. Each gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the calories you get from other nutrients. (Each teaspoon of oil or butter packs in 4.5 grams of fat or 40 calories.) By comparison, proteins and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, while alcohol provides 7 calories per gram. However, more recent research suggests that when nuts and other unsaturated fats were included in a weight-loss diet, individuals were able to stick to the diet longer and felt more satisfied. Research also suggests that because fat is slow to digest, it aids in satiety, so that you feel fuller longer. For this same reason, dietary fat is generally not well tolerated in large amounts immediately before high-intensity exercise.
For athletes, fat requirements often take a backseat to the most important nutrients for performance, carbohydrates and proteins. As a general guideline, most athletes need to determine carbohydrate requirements first, proteins second; then the remainder of the calories should fill in as healthy fats.
The so-called healthy fats to focus on in your diet are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Diets rich in these types of fats, such as the Mediterranean-style diet, are linked with lower risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers compared to diets high in carbohydrates and low in total fat or diet-rich in saturated fats and tans fats. In addition, several studies worldwide have found that there are health benefits to consuming diets richer in fats (albeit healthy unsatu-rated fats) compared to eating diets too rich in processed carbohydrates. However, these studies were conducted on sedentary individuals who didn't have the high carbohydrates that athletes have, so we're not recommending that you trade in your pasta for olive oil or go for peanut butter, not jelly. We are emphasizing that unsaturated fats aren't bad, and they appear to have health benefits that simple carbohydrates lack.
Studies over the past several decades have shown that the typical American diet—rich in saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids—may be contributing to chronic inflammation, central adiposity (increased belly fat), type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance, among other health problems. Making changes to reduce saturated fats and increase unsaturated fats and omega-3s may help control inflammation and help reduce risk for all these health conditions. That brings us to getting to know the types of fats in our food and which ones you want to eat more of, and those you want to limit.
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