What do you think of when you think of fat? Most people associate dietary fat with body fat, unhealthiness and “being bad.” The root of these beliefs can be traced back to the 1980s and 1990s with the “low fat revolution” which just happens to be about when the obesity epidemic started. Coincidence? I think not!
Why are fats awesome? Fat is an essential part of normal body functioning. Body fat is essential for proper hormone functioning, vitamin absorption from the food you eat (vitamins A,E,D, and K) and cushioning of your joints. Certain fats have even been shown to be anti-inflammatory, beneficial for weight management, and heart-healthy – actually helping to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Another very important reason to have fat is that it provides satiety and flavor for your food. Food that is higher in fat is typically more decadent and satisfying than plain old protein or carb foods. Would you rather have a plain slice of bread, or one with peanut butter on it? Ponder this interesting side effect: since fat slows digestion, higher fat meals actually keep you fuller for longer, helping to prevent overeating. Hence, adding a bit of fat to your meals can help you maintain your weight. Very contrary to what my mother said!
How much fat do you need? I generally recommend about 25-30% of dietary calories to be from fat, which can be anywhere from 50-100 grams per day depending on your calorie needs and training levels. Since 1 teaspoon of oil = about 5 grams of fat, that means you can enjoy a good dose of healthy fat at every meal and snack. Healthy fats can be added during meals by eating fatty fish, coconut, olive and canola oils, and nuts or nut butters. Snacks are also a great time to sneak nuts into your diet. In this recent study, nut intake is shown to lower the risk for heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Limit saturated fats (natural fats that are solid at room temperature such as butter or the fat on meats) and avoid as many trans fats as you can (these are from processed foods).
While there is no hard rule for how much fat is “too much,” it is important to mention that very high fat diets are not recommended because they displace the calories you need for other foods. As with everything, moderation is the key.
What about fats in a sports-specific meal plan? While fat is not utilized much as fuel during intense exercise, it can be used as an energy source for low-moderate intensity exercise, particularly for long-duration exercise. In addition to the reasons described earlier, the best reason to include fats in your training menu is that your body can use those fat calories at rest, leaving the important carbohydrate stores for your workouts. Timing of fat intake can be important when eating around exercise. Be aware that since fat slows the digestion of food, it may not be the best idea to have a fatty meal before a long, hard bike ride, especially if you are prone to tummy troubles.
Plan for some wiggle room: Since most health professionals realize that you can’t eat perfectly all the time, give yourself the ability to have something that may not be the healthiest but that just tastes good every once in a while. But if you do have that cheeseburger, potato chips, ice cream, etc. take the time to enjoy and savor it! My general rule is, 80-90% of the time I make the healthy choice, 10-20% I just enjoy whatever I am eating. Even dietitians have their vices!
What’s your favorite way to add healthy fats to your diet?
Laura Hunter, MS, RD, CD is a sports and family dietitian practicing in the Lynnwood area. A former collegiate distance runner, she loves athletes and helping them optimize nutrition for performance. Other areas of interest include family nutrition for obesity prevention, eating disorder treatment and recovery, and healthy pregnancy. She draws inspiration from her own family, including two young, active boys. She can be found online at Laura Hunter Nutrition.