Coaching Association of Canada

Real Facts About Fats and Sport

“Fats are bad for you”. “Fats are fattening”

These are two common myths when it comes to describing dietary fat. Just like protein and carbohydrate, athletes need to eat essential fats since no human can make them and they serve several critical physiological functions. 

Fats are essential for: providing a source of energy & essential fatty acids; absorbing & transporting fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K); protecting internal organs; integrity of body cells; making specific hormones and other regulators of healthy body function.

 Dietary fats are often hidden in both natural (e.g. cheese, nuts, meats) foods and processed foods (e.g. cookies, chips, muffins). Visible fats such as oils and butter are often added with meal preparation or at the table and so more easily controlled.

Fats also come in many forms: 

►The essential fats

  • These are polyunsaturated fats that include omega-6 varieties found in nuts, seeds, and sunflower, safflower, and corn oils; and omega-3 varieties found in flaxseed, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel), fish oils, and walnuts. Inadequate consumption of these fats results in poor health.

►The non-essential fats

  • Though not essential for wellbeing, monounsaturated fats are healthier than most other fats in this category.  They are abundant in olive, canola, and peanut oils; peanut butter.
  • Saturated Fat: are abundant in fats found in meat and dairy foods, hydrogenated oils and shortenings common in processed foods.  Some are OK but too much of this type of fat is unhealthy. 
  • Trans fats: are the least healthy of all dietary fats. Usually the result of hydrogenating plant oils, these are common in processed products such as snack foods, commercial baked goods, and fast food.

Most athletes require the same dietary fat as non-athletes. Some require more because they can’t get enough calories from protein and carbohydrates to cover the high energy costs of their training and competition.  It is critical that all athletes choose both enough fat and the healthiest types in order to maintain optimal performance and avoid illness or injury. These include: olive, canola and flaxseed oils, fatty fish, nuts and seeds. 

Hot Topic: Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Research does not suggest the need for supplemental omega 3 to enhance sport performances, as long as athletes consume fatty fish two times a week to support good health. However, recent research supports that having adequate omega 3 fatty acid intake will help reduce inflammation from training and/or to help manage asthma.

Too Much Fat in the Diet?

  • May prevent consumption of sufficient carbohydrates and/or protein;
  • Delays digestion, potentially causing stitches when eaten before exercise;
  • Excess fat consumption is prevalent, leading to long-term health problems

Too Little Dietary Fat?

  • Meals aren’t interesting, satisfying or filling;
  • May not consume enough food energy (calories);
  • Leads to essential fatty acid deficiencies; 
  • May compromise growth & maturation;
  • Negatively affects health, including skin, hair, and bones.

Athletes should strive for a diet providing between 20-35% of total energy (calories) from dietary fat. No athlete should be consuming less than 1 gram of essential fat per kilogram of body weight.  The following two examples illustrate how this range can be achieved from dietary fat sources with 2500 and 3500 caloric intakes.

Sources of Fat for:
2500 Calorie Diet with 20-35% Fat = 56-83 grams fat for a day

20% Fat (56 g)

2 tsp butter/margarine 
1 Tbsp peanut butter  
2 Tbsp oil   
3 c 1% milk
3 oz/90 g turkey 
3 oz/90 g salmon  

 35% Fat (83 g)

3 tsp butter/ margarine
2 Tbsp peanut butter
3 Tbsp oil
4 c 1% milk
4 oz/120 g turkey
4 oz/120 g salmon

Sources of Fat for:
3500 Calorie Diet with 20-35% Fat = 78-117 grams fat for a day

20% Fat (78 g)                       

2 tsp butter/ margaine
2 Tbsp peanut butter
3 Tbsp oil       
4 c 1% milk
4 oz/120 g turkey
4 oz/120 g salmon

35% Fat (117 g)

3 tsp butter/ margarine
3 Tbsp peanut butter
3 Tbsp oil + 24 almonds (1 oz)
4 c 1% milk
4 oz/120 g turkey
4 oz/120 g salmon
1 oz/30 g cheddar cheese

For athletes to perform at their best, all essential nutrients must be consumed on a regular basis, from a well-balanced diet that includes fats (not too much, but not too little) to support good health. Consulting with a Registered Dietitian is a proactive step to ensure dietary intakes are on track for personal best sport performances!

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