|Nancy Brinch, MS, RD, LSW,
is Richard Stockton College's campus nutritionist. She obtained
her BS in Food and Nutriton from the Univ. of Delaware and her Master's
in Nutrition from Penn State Univ.
She provides individual, confidential nutritional counseling to
students. Her service is free for RSC students. For appointments
call extension 5740. Nancy Brinch can be contacted at Nancy.Brinch@stockton.edu
|Do Athletes Need Fat in Their Diets?
By Nancy Brinch, MS, RD, LSW
For years health professionals advised Americans to decrease their
fat intake. This
advice was well-founded considering the prevalence of obesity in
the U.S. The message the public heard was that fat was bad and substituting
carbohydrates for fat in the diet was the road to healthy weight
and good health. Then Dr. Atkins re-emerged promoting a high-fat,
low-carbohydrate road to healthy weight. Suddenly it seemed fat
was good and carbs were bad. What is a person supposed to eat when
the health experts can't agree on a healthy diet?
How does this advice effect athletes?
Some athletes responded to these health messages by eliminating
as much fat from their diets as possible. Endurance athletes tried
to increase their competitiveness by limiting their fat intake,
and athletes such as gymnasts and figure skaters tried to improve
their appearance by eating very low-fat diets to keep their body
weight and percent body fat down. The problem with this very low-fat
approach is that energy intake may not meet energy needs, especially
for endurance athletes. In female athletes very low-fat diets can
lead to disruption of the menstrual cycle and increased susceptibility
to stress fractures.
Other athletes tried a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet in an attempt
to reach a healthy weight or to spare glycogen stores by burning
fatty acids for fuel instead of burning glucose. They found the
high-fat diet did not improve endurance or lead to permanent weight
How much dietary fat does an athlete need?
Fat is an essential nutrient. Along with carbohydrate, fat is considered
a protein-sparing energy nutrient. In other words, by consuming
adequate calories from fat and carbohydrate, protein can be spared
for its unique functions such as muscle building and the production
of enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Fat from food is broken down
to fatty acids during digestion, and some of these fatty acids are
necessary for health. These so-called essential fatty acids
must be consumed from food because the body cannot make them like
it makes other fatty acids. A deficiency of these essential fatty
acids affects the hair, skin, and the immune system. Fat also is
necessary for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D,
E and K. Low-fat diets can cause a deficiency of these vitamins.
An athlete should consume 20 to 25% of caloric intake from fat.
To estimate how many grams of fat this would be, multiply daily
caloric intake by .20 or by .25 and divide the resulting number
by 9 (there are 9 calories in a gram of fat.) For example, if an
athlete requires 2,500 calories a day the fat intake should be 55
to 70 grams of fat daily (2,500 calories X .20 or .25 divided by
The healthiest fat sources are the ones that come from plants
and from fish. For example, plant oils like olive oil and canola
oil as well as nuts, peanut butter and seeds such as sesame seeds
are excellent sources of healthy fats. The
fat in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and herring is a good source
of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (Recent concerns about potential
problems from mercury content of fish do not apply to these fish.)
Fat from animal sources is high in saturated fat and should be limited
to no more than 10% of calories. Such foods include whole milk,
butter, cheese, ice cream and fatty meats. Trans fatty acids also
should be limited. They are found in processed plant oils and foods
made from them such as margarine, chips, crackers, and cookies.
An athlete who requires 2500 calories daily could consume 70 grams
of fat by eating 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 2 tablespoons of
salad dressing, 1 ounce of nuts, and 8 ounces of lean meat, poultry,
The Bottom Line:
Athletes need to include some sources of fat in their diets. The
amount should be limited, and the sources should be primarily plant
foods and fish. Consuming too little fat can impair performance
and health while consuming too much fat can result in excessive
weight gain or inadequate carbohydrate intake that can impair performance.