Before everyone started to bash carbohydrates, fat was the target. People still seek out no fat or low-fat foods, not understanding that healthy fat is crucial for the body.
Fat plays an integral part in the diet, but it is crucial to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fats, and how much one should consume for maximum benefit.
In this article, we will cover:
- How the body uses fats,
- The importance of fats during exercise,
- The different types of fat,
- How much fat should you eat?
How the Body Uses Fats
Most people are uninformed of the role fat plays in the body. It protects organs, is needed to create cell membranes, and is used to create brain and nervous system tissue. It is also responsible for the transportation of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, supplying them to cells.
A lack of fat in a diet can play havoc with hormone function. Cholesterol, for instance, a type of fat, is needed to make hormones such as testosterone. Too little fat and testosterone will plummet. Males, especially athletes, need normal levels of testosterone.
As well as making food taste better and helping with satiety, fat has another significant role in the body – it is the body’s largest fuel source.
The Importance of Fats during Exercise
Most people have heard that the body needs carbs to fuel exercise sessions, and that is true. But the body uses both fat and carbs simultaneously for energy production during exercise. Consider it a blended fuel, oxidized from part carbs and part fat.
Which form of ‘fuel’ is predominant (i.e., the ratio of fat to carbs used) depends on numerous factors, such as diet, the intensity of the training and its duration, and one’s fitness level and how many carbs consumed before exercise.
Everyone’s body and reaction to exercise is different, but generally:
The body burns fat rather than carbs for energy at low to moderate intensity levels (up to 65%), burning more as you intensify your training. As exercise ramps up, the body switches to using carbs for energy during high-intensity workouts (75% plus). The longer the exercise time, the more fatty acids (fat) are used, primarily because the body is depleting carbohydrate stores and is looking for alternative fuel sources.
Athletes such as endurance runners will want to burn more fat for more extended periods to preserve their carbohydrate stores. The body has a limited ability to store carbs, while it has a much larger capacity for fat. Fat stores as adipose tissue (the fat we can see) as well as the intramuscular fat stored in the muscles itself that we can’t see.
Nutritionists estimate the human body can probably store around 2,000 calories as carbs, but more than 50 times that when calories are stored as fat. One gram of fat, for instance, has nine calories, while one gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.
Carbohydrate stores can deplete within two hours of moderate or intense exercise. In contrast, a person could run for thousands of miles on fat stores alone, which is why endurance runners would love to burn fat first and save their carbohydrate reserves for later in their performance. That is why it is so crucial to have good fat in their diet.
The Different Types of Fat
There are three main types of fat in our diets:
- Trans Fats
- Unsaturated Fats (Poly and Mono)
- Saturated Fats
Trans fats are found in highly processed foods or foods that contain hydrogenated oils (such as fried foods and baked goods). They can compromise cell membranes and cause all sorts of health issues, including a rise in bad cholesterol, a lowering of good cholesterol and a subsequent higher risk of heart disease. It’s best to avoid trans fats altogether.
Unsaturated fats are considered healthy fats. Polyunsaturated fats, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, are known for their heart beneficial effects and anti-inflammatory benefits. Healthy sources of Omega-6 include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and meat, while fish, fish oils, walnuts, soybeans, and tofu are good sources of Omega-3.
Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly useful in regulating the level of inflammation in the muscles. Inflamed muscles are common after exercise but if left untreated are sore, weaker and lack a full range of motion, all of which are critical for athletes. A diet that is low in Omega-3 but tipped to the more common Omega-6 not only fails to correct inflammation but may predispose your body towards it, preventing exercise recovery.
Monounsaturated fats are also considered healthy and are in olive oil, nuts, eggs, and avocado.
Saturated fats (found in full-fat dairy, dark meats, poultry with skin) have been frowned upon by some experts, but recent meta-analysis research in 2014 suggests they may not raise heart disease risk as previously thought. They may help nutrient absorption and help maintain a healthy weight if used as part of a balanced diet.
Please note that the above research on saturated fats is controversial and many nutritionists do not accept it.
How Much Fat Should You Eat?
The International Olympic Committee recommends never letting overall fat intake fall below 15-20% of total calorie intake. Some athletes regularly consume as much as 35% of calories from fats alone, while the American College of Sports Medicine recommends anywhere between 20-35%.
Current guidelines on saturated fats, recommend consuming no more than 5-6% of calories as saturated fats, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Other experts recommend no more than 10% for athletes.
The take away is to remember is that eating fat will not make you fat. Fat supports overall health and athletic performance.
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