Fat can be maligned and some of that simply stems from its name. Yet, fat serves many functions in the body including those essential for performance. Athletes need to be educated on the need for fat in their diet.
Fat recommendations typically are less precise than those of carbohydrate and protein. While absolute carbohydrate and protein recommendations have been established (expressed as g/kg), an absolute recommended fat intake has not been standardized, though some weight lossists aim to ensure an intake of at least 1 g/kg of body weight. Usually, however, fat recommendations are expressed in relative terms (as a percentage) and are calculated after protein and carbohydrate recommendations have been established. This amount ideally should fall within the AMDR for fat based upon the RDA of 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat. Typically, this approach will ensure sufficient intake of fat. This estimation will be illustrated in Chapter 7 on meal planning for athletes.
When an athlete’s intake of fat is inadequate, including an insufficient intake of essential fatty acids, there are several risks. First, fat is an important energy source, and endurance and ultra-endurance athletes especially need to be mindful that dietary fat helps restore intramuscular triglycerides that can become depleted during endurance exercise. Inadequate fat consumption may also result in negative health effects, including lowered sex hormone production, and unfavorable blood lipid profiles potentially increasing one’s risk for heart disease. Finally, there is a risk of inadequate intake or malabsorption of fat-soluble vitamins with insufficient dietary fat, as well as a risk of deficiency of essential fatty acids.
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Fat intakes greater than 35 percent of total caloric intake have potential negative effects as well. First, fat is a very dense nutrient. For an athlete to meet their carbohydrate and protein needs recommended for optimal training and performance, and maintain a high dietary fat intake, they risk an excessive caloric intake that may result in weight gain. If an athlete consumes a high amount of dietary fat while reducing protein or carbohydrate or both to balance calories, then they risk the negative effects of inadequate carbohydrate or protein or both for performance and training. Dietary manipulation of fat that results in a high fat intake has been shown to increase fat oxidation, though this has not been shown to improve athletic performance.
Thus, an athlete should be advised to maintain a fat intake approximating 20 to 35 percent of their calories coming from dietary fat. Too much or too little may result in adverse outcomes. Athletes should be educated on the different types of fatty acids. An emphasis should be placed on incorporating healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, to decrease the intake of saturated fatty acids, and limit their intake of trans fatty acids.
Timing of Fat Intake
Again we see that recommendations for the timing of fat intake are affected by the timing recommendations for carbohydrate and protein. Athletes want to avoid high fat intake just before sport. Fat slows the rate of gastric emptying and could impede the delivery of other nutrients to working muscle cells, including that of glucose. Consuming a lot of fat just before exercise may also result in GI distress for some athletes. Thus, athletes are recommended to focus on low-fat food choices before exercise.
Fat consumption should be limited during exercise, especially during high-intensity sports, as well as in efforts to avoid nutrients that delay gastric emptying and impede delivery of carbohydrate to muscles. Some athletes can tolerate small amounts of fat during low- to moderate-intensity exercise, such as with endurance and ultraendurance events, though this has to be established on an individual basis. These athletes should ensure that any fat consumed during exercise is not displacing the more essential carbohydrates, and in some instances protein. Immediately after exercise, athletes want to ensure sufficient intake of carbohydrate and protein, and small to moderate amounts of fat can be appropriate.
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