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Most popular diets flooding magazine pages and websites emphasize cutting calories and avoiding fat to lose weight. Such diets may be appropriate for people looking to lose extra pounds. For athletes, however, they can convey the false impression that all fats should be avoided. In reality, healthy fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—are critical components of a diet for energy and other performance benefits.
Fats are an enormous source of energy, delivering nine calories per gram, compared to four calories per gram for carbohydrate and protein. Since it's easily stored in the body, fat provides sustained energy, especially for low-intensity exercise like walking or jogging. Fat also prevents the breakdown of muscle protein and promotes faster recovery after a workout. Finally, fat protects vital organs and plays a role in many critical bodily functions.
Most athletes should incorporate healthy doses of fat in their diets. Sports nutritionists recommend that fats comprise 35% of daily caloric intake [learn how to calculate your daily caloric needs]. No need to shy away from fatty foods such as red meat or dairy, but it's good to eat a variety of different fats, particularly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in olive oil, nuts and milk.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting consumption of foods high in saturated fats—like butter, cream, bacon and fried foods—to less than seven percent of your daily calories, and eliminating foods with trans fats—like margarine, cakes mixes, and most fast food—to improve overall health.
Although it's counter-intuitive to many, consuming proper amounts of healthy fats contributes to a balanced diet, which is necessary for optimal athletic performance and training improvements.