Do your meals look like this?
Breakfast: cereal with skim milk, banana, orange juice
Lunch: bagel, nonfat yogurt, pretzels, water
Snack: energy bar, apple
Dinner: salad with nonfat dressing, pasta in tomato sauce, bread
Dessert: nonfat cookies, frozen yogurt
If so, you may have found that you are dozing at your desk in the afternoon, having hunger pangs between meals, thinking about pizza and cookies, or feeling sluggish during long workouts. Adding a little fat to your meals may just be the thing that helps.
Athletes Need More Than Carbs
Athletes know that carbohydrates are good for them. This is because they are the energy source that muscles prefer during exercise. About 45 to 65% of our diet should come from carbs. But to improve endurance, a carbohydrate-rich diet should also include fat. A diet that includes a moderate amount of fat will allow you to workout longer before you become tired.
A restrictive diet makes it hard for athletes to get the energy they need to perform at their best. Eating foods that contain fat is one way for athletes to meet their energy needs and improve performance.
Fat to Fuel Muscles
Hard-working muscles are hungry for calories from fat, but they are also hungry for the fat itself. Training helps our muscles burn fat. As we get more fit, we still burn more carbs than fat, but fat plays a greater role. It gives us energy and helps us use our carbs for things like that big hill coming up at mile 20 of our run.
The high-pretzel, low-peanut diets that most fat avoiders are proud of may be leaving them short on muscle-bound fat. This forces the body to depend on stored carbs. In short, the more fat we have to draw on, the longer we can exercise before we get tired.
Eating Fat Without Getting Fat
We will only gain weight if we take in more calories than we burn. In fact, many of us who avoid fat may not be eating enough calories to meet our high energy needs. Adding a little fat can help us increase our calorie intake to where it should be. It may also make those nagging hunger pains go away.
Choose Your Fats Wisely
The total fat limit for adults is 20 to 35% of our total calories. We need fats, but not all fats are the same.
Since trans fatty acids are the most damaging to the heart, athletes should limit their intake of:
- Fried foods
- Other foods with hydrogenated oils
Saturated fats such as that found in beef and milk may not be as harmful as once thought. In contrast, monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil and canola oil) can help to improve health. Polyunsaturated fats are also thought to be healthy. Foods that have polyunsaturated fats are:
- Natural peanut butter
- Fatty fish
Getting Over Your Fear
Here are some tips to slowly start adding in some fat:
- Top your salad with low-fat dressing instead of nonfat dressing.
- Spread some peanut butter on a bagel or piece of toast or on fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, and celery.
- Make an omelet using the whole egg, not just the egg whites.
- Sprinkle low-fat cheese on things like pasta, omelets, chili, stew, and soup.
- Choose low-fat yogurt, cheese, salad dressing, cookies, and crackers instead of nonfat versions.
- Snack on peanuts, walnuts, and other nuts. Watch how much you eat since nuts are also high in calories.
- Add some guacamole to a roll-up sandwich.
- Sauté vegetables in olive or canola oil instead of nonfat cooking spray.
- Eat fatty fish like salmon twice a week.
- Treat yourself to one real cookie instead of six or eight nonfat ones.
Try some of these tips for a week and see if you notice a change. You may just find that you are less hungry in the afternoons and having more energy during workouts.
American Society for Nutrition
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
ACME fit society page. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: https://www.acsm.org/docs/fit-society-page/2011springfspn_nutrition.pdf?sfvrsn=0. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 and online materials. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Gillespie H. Basic nutrition for athletes. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://forms.acsm.org/TPC/PDFs/13%20Gillespie.pdf. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 6/22/2021