Fats and fatty acids are an essential component of the diet. They provide the body energy, have essential structural, storage and metabolic functions and they help with the absorption of essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Not all fats are created equal. They are divided into different categories depending on the type of bonds:
These are generally fats from animals and animal products and are generally solid at room temperature. You’ll find them in food such as the fat you see on a piece of meat, skin of the chicken, lard, dripping, butter, cheese and cream. These generally increase total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, hence increasing your risk of a coronary heart disease.
These are divided into a further two groups: omega 3 and omega 6 fats.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in foods such as oily fish/ blue fish such as pilchards, sardines, salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna and trout, as well as some seeds and nuts such as linseed and walnuts. Omega 3 fats do not directly affect cholesterol levels, but research shows they help in the prevention of heart attacks, increases concentration, reduces the chances of forming a blood clots and more recently aids in inflammatory disorders such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Having 2 small portions of oily fish a week should ensure an adequate intake of omega 3’s.
Omega 6 fatty acids are those such as canola or sunflower oil have been shown to help reduce total cholesterol.
Mono-unsaturated fatty acids, such as olive oil, avocados and almonds have been shown to reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol hence improving heart health.
Trans fats are found in treat foods such as crisps/ chips – Potato, corn and tortilla; pastry; doughnuts; commercially baked cakes; pies; deep fried foods; some take away foods; non-dairy coffee creamer and some margarines. Trans fats will increase total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lowers HDL cholesterol therefore increasing the risk of heart disease.
Fats in Sports Nutrition
The fat requirements of athletes in endurance sports are similar to or slightly higher than the general public. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that daily fat intake for athletes should be 20-35% of total energy intake and the International Society for Sport Nutrition suggests a moderate fat intake of 30% of total energy but this can increase to 50% of total energy for athletes doing a high-volume training like for the full Iron Man. Both the ACSM and ISSN as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agree that fat intake should not decrease below 15-20% of total energy intake as this can reduce the intake of a variety of nutrients such as fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, especially omega 3 fatty acids. Restrictions like this usually occur in athletes trying to lose body weight or improve their body composition.
There is a lot of debate about high fat and low carbohydrate diets in sports nutrition. The current recommendation, based on recent evidence is that athletes should be cautious of high fat diets, as the high fat intake can be at the expense of carbohydrate intake and may therefore have negative effects on training and racing performance. More research is required in this area, but for now, it is recommended that athletes should follow healthy eating guidelines which focus on consuming moderate amounts of mono-unsaturated olive, rapeseed, groundnut and almond oils, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds and omega-3 fats which can be found in oily fish such as mackerel, fresh tuna, salmon and sardines as well as in flaxseed (linseed), walnuts, soybeans and dark green leafy vegetables and to reduce the intake of saturated fats.
Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. March 2016 Volume 116 Number 3.
Potgieter, S. Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013; 26(1):6-16.