Typically, athletes are advised to keep their fat intake low for optimal athletic performance. Unfortunately, some athletes interpret this as a total avoidance of fat intake. This is not only detrimental to performance, but also to overall health.
Just like carbohydrates and protein, not all fats are equal in the way they affect your body. The “healthy” fats are the types required for health, energy production, regulation of cell functions and healing. Many of these are the essential fatty acids (EFAs) or the fats we need from our environment that the body does not produce, such as linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid and fish oils. The “bad” fats interfere with health and slow down athletic performance (1).
Fats Regulating Energy Production
Stored or free fat in the body cannot produce energy anaerobically (i.e. literally, without oxygen, such as during sprints or high-intensity exercise), but they can contribute significant energy production during endurance activities. Various factors, such as limited transport of fatty acids into the muscle cell and limited lipase (enzymes that help metabolize fat) activity, may limit fat as a source of energy during these activities (2).
When a fat is used or metabolized, there are two factors that affect how a fat affects energy production: 1) its chain length, or the number of carbon atoms it consists of, and 2) how many double bonds they have (1).
Chain length primarily concerns saturated fats. The term “saturated fat” refers to the chemical structure of the fat. Saturated fats consist of fatty acids in which carbons are joined by single bonds. Carbon, by nature, can form four bonds. In these fats, it is usually bonded to another carbon atom or a hydrogen atom, unless it is the last carbon on the molecule. These fats do not contain any double bonds.
The shorter the saturated fatty acid, the less it inhibits energy production. The body easily metabolizes short-chain fatty acids to produce energy. These are four to 12 carbon atoms in length and consist of a class of saturated fats called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are six to 12 carbon lengths.
MCTs do not exist in nature. They are man-made and can be bought in a health food store (1). These are absorbed rapidly from the intestines, enter muscle cells easier than other fats, and are metabolized at a rate comparable to carbohydrates (2). Because of their shorter length and dense source of energy, athletes like to use these as a source of energy, ingesting approximately one tablespoon prior to competition or workouts (1). Today, more supplement companies are including these in products such as Muscle Milk by Cytosport. Be aware when reading the label that it will have a certain amount of saturated fat because MCTs are saturated fats. Having more MCTs can create an irritating scratching sensation in your throat and stomach discomfort (1,3,4). These are non-essential nutrients that the body needs, nor are they a
part of a natural diet.
Several studies investigating the potential benefits of MCTs as ergogenic aids have been conducted in endurance trained athletes, however, thus far, MCT supplementation offers no benefit (2,3,4). This could be related to the small amounts of MCTs that can be ingested before gastrointestinal discomfort occurs (3). Therefore, MCT supplementation cannot be advised thus far.
As much as the shorter chain fatty acids speed up metabolism, the opposite can be said of long chain fatty acids. These inhibit energy production. The longer they are, the more they slow down energy production because the body takes more energy to metabolize them. These are fats found in tropical oils (coconut, palm and palm kernel oils), land animals, butter, margarine and certain vegetable oils (1).
Degree of Unsaturation
The more double bonds in a fatty acid, the more it speeds up metabolism and stimulates energy production. So a saturated fatty acid of a particular chain length is “slower” than an unsaturated fatty acid of the same carbon chain length.
Also, the greater the double bonds present in a fatty acid, the more it increases oxidation rate, metabolic rate, and energy production (1). This may be partially responsible for why men can induce a small but significant loss of body weight and fat mass without a significant change in total energy or fat intake by changing the from saturated fat to monounsaturated fat consumption (5).
Fat for Energy
Keeping your fat intake to less than 15 percent may have a harmful effect by inhibiting absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (i.e. vitamins A, D, E and K) – those vitamins that dissolve in fat (2,10). Having such a low fat intake has no effect on improving your body fat percentage (10) and may be more of a detriment on athletic performance because of a greater reliability on carbohydrates for energy (2). Once carbohydrate stores are emptied, you will hit the wall quicker. Dietary fat intake is necessary.
The fats in an athlete’s diet should consist of short-chain fatty acids, like MCTs, monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fats such as alpha-linoleic acid, linoleic acid (found in flax seeds and flax oil) and fish oils.
Avoid long-chain saturated fats that promote poor health and performance. These are found in foods that are processed, altered, fried, deep-fried, hydrogenated, and rotten. These interfere with cellular functions and some inhibit cell oxidation and energy levels. Some injure cell membranes, tissues and arteries. Others interfere with digestive processes, resulting in poorer absorption of nutrients, bowel irritation, and allergic reactions that require more energy to process, leaving less for performance (1).
Athletes who start taking omega-3’s report increased endurance, better performance (1) and faster recovery (6). Although this phenomenon is not totally understood, this may be because of the omega-3’s role in
oxygen transfer (oxidation) in the lungs (1). However, reports of improved performance are certainly not “batting one thousand” (7).
Because of the increase of oxidation and metabolic rate, omega-3’s and other highly unsaturated fatty acids such as stearidonic, gamma-linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty abbreviated, GLA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) prevent fat deposition. These help with the loss of excess body fat and water (1,9).
Fat for Healing
Another area of athletic performance that healthy fats are getting some attention is their role in healing. We know that omega-3’s have an anti-inflammatory role in our bodies (2,6,8), but whether it is strong enough to produce a significant improvement in recovery time may still be debatable. However, this is still a relatively new area requiring more research to confirm whether or not healthy fatty acids like omega-3’s could speed recovery from exercise.
Athletes with bruises and sprains heal faster when omega-3’s are included in their diets. Some studies suggest minor injuries take only one quarter to one third of the healing time previously required (1). Recently, it has been demonstrated that fish oil supplementation may be a possible treatment aid or adjunct therapy in asthma and exercise-induced asthma – a condition many athletes suffer from (8). Because of the number of unknown factors involved in determining how effective omega-3’s are, rely on more dependable measures of recovering from injuries, such as ice, rest and anti-inflammatory drugs, but perhaps omega-3’s may help at some level.
Because of the multiple uses of omega-3’s and essential fatty acids (EFAs) in our diet, we should certainly be supplementing with them. How much? The recommendations vary. It is largely dependent on your overall diet. One “fat expert” said the body requires enough EFAs to make your skin feel velvety. This could range from one to five tablespoons of flax seed oil per day. If you can scratch a letter on your hand, then it is too dry (1).
However, this recommendation does not explain what is the best amount for athletic performance. Unfortunately, this is also unknown. In the studies that show the many benefits, usually subjects were taking 1.5 grams of EPA and one gram of DHA from fish oil.
Do not take only one type of oil, such as only flax or GLA, etc. When you ingest just one type, you may become dominant in just one type of fatty acid. Flax is rich in only alpha-linoleic acid. GLA is an omega-6 fatty. You must also consider the amount you are getting from your food.
It has been suggested to consume optimal ratios of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are found in abundance in our Western diet due to excessive heating and processing of food. Healthy omega-3’s can be broken down into mostly unhealthy omega-6’s (1).
There is a product on the market called Udo’s Perfected Blend in which he has what is believed to be the optimal amount of omega-3:omega-6 ratio, as well as some MCTs. This oil has a pleasant nutty taste that can be easily mixed into yogurt, protein shakes and salads (1).
Fish oil is another alternative. People previously worried that eating fish might increase exposure to mercury, pesticides, heavy metals, or an assortment of toxic substances. But today there is more public pressure to create purified oils without these contaminants in them. There are currently a number of brands that have fish oils independently lab-tested for contaminants and toxins. Many brands now
Choosing an Oil
Just like fresh produce, highly unsaturated fats are sensitive to light, oxygen, heat, processing and time, and they can produce toxic substances when exposed to any of these. These substances will inhibit energy production and performance.
Choose oils bottled in a dark glass and refrigerated. Make sure to keep it refrigerated at home and finish the bottle within three to six weeks.
Do the following:
- As an athlete, your overall fat consumption should be 20 to 25 percent fat (2), 40-100 g per day, depending on your activity.
- Choose healthy fat sources from nuts, avocados and cold-water fish.
- One-third of your overall fat intake should be EFA’s.
- Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids if you do not eat cold-water fish twice per week.
- Experiment with MCTs. First try prior to practice events before a major competition.
Until next time…
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