Get “Phat” with Fat
Many recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts are still “fat phobic”, believing that eating fat will make them fat or cause blockage in the arteries leading to heart disease. There still exists the notion of “good” and “bad” fats, which originated decades ago and is still perpetuated by the media and health professionals. To this, we say “times are changing” as nutrition research evolves and we build the body of scientific evidence.
If you are interested in transforming your body to become more “metabolically efficient” (also known as “fat-adapted”), the implementation strategies involve eating more fat to varying degrees depending on which strategy is best suited for you. As we manipulate daily nutrition patterns to control carbohydrates, boost fat intake, and keep protein intake fairly constant, we can see the body begin to utilize internal fat stores as a fuel source, while preserving the limited stores of carbohydrate. All of this without compromising health and athletic performance — bonus!
Now, this does not mean you have a free ticket to load up on any and all fats without giving attention to the other aspects of your daily nutrition choices and quantities. Nor does it necessarily mean you have to switch to nibbling on butter during exercise. The level of “how high fat do I need to go?” will depend on many factors, but the good news is when implemented properly, increasing fat does not cause athletes to become fat nor does it increase risk for incidence of disease states. On the contrary, the scientific evidence is showing it is high dietary intakes of carbohydrates that are more associated with the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
A question commonly heard when discussing fats in the context of metabolic efficiency is “how and why are fats important for making me a more fat-adapted athlete?” Here is a “top 4” list to provide insight:
- In order to improve your body’s ability to use its fat stores more efficiently, the underlying strategy is to put together foods at our snacks and meals that stabilize blood sugar and minimize insulin spikes. Dietary fat sources (such as avocado, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, olives and olive oil, high fat dairy, higher fat meats) make up a part of this strategy. For example, a meal that consists of cereal, skim milk, banana and orange juice is essentially a high carbohydrate meal which spikes blood sugar and turns down the ability to enhance fat utilization. The overhauled meal may look like: an egg-veggie omelet cooked in coconut oil topped with avocado. This meal still provides carbohydrate but at a much lower amount and is higher in fat and protein, all of which keeps blood sugar more stable and allows for cellular changes (over time) to allow for greater fat utilization.
- Fat provides satiety. Are you one of the athletes who gets hungry every 2 hours or has to graze constantly? Fat has a significant impact on making us “feel full” primarily due to its longer digestion time. Even though fat-containing foods are more calorically dense on a per gram basis, the net caloric intake at the end of the day may likely be less compared to a higher carbohydrate pattern because these meals tame the level of hunger better.
- Fats can actually be anti-inflammatory, particularly the omega-3 and monounsaturated fat sources and when there is a more balanced ratio of omega 6 fats to omega 3 fat intake. Saturated fats are not the evil they once were and should be included in an athlete’s daily nutrition (remember, this should be customized to your health goals and medical situation by a registered dietitian). Systemic inflammation is a major contributor to the onset and progression of chronic and autoimmune diseases so why not change our nutrition patterns to minimize inflammation?
- Athletes who are eating higher amounts of fat along with consistently stabilizing blood sugar levels show significant improvements in fat utilization during exercise, as shown by lab testing. I have tested numerous athletes over the last 5 years and have observed amazing changes in athletes who commit to overhauling their daily nutrition patterns. The benefits of this include a reduced reliance on supplemental carbohydrates during training and racing and absence of gastrointestinal distress.
I hope this helps shed a different perspective on how and why fat can positively affect our health, performance and improve our metabolic efficiency.
-Dina Griffin, MS, RD, CSSD
Sport Dietitian for eNRG Performance