Fat is a necessary macronutrient in your diet—but all fats are not created equal.
Fat cushions our organs and protects them from trauma, which is especially important for those of us who play contact sports. It is also a potent source of concentrated energy. We need fat to absorb and transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat also helps form steroid hormones, maintains cell membrane structure, insulates the body against heat loss and protects nerve tissue.
Dietary fat should not be feared, but it shouldn’t be abused, either. Your goal should be to consume a moderate amount of good fats while minimizing bad fats.
Healthy fats refer to unsaturated fatty acids. An unsaturated fatty acid has one or more carbon bonds on its hydrocarbon chain. Simply stated, these bonds allow unsaturated fats to be liquid at room temperature and harden when chilled. If the fatty acid chain has a single double bond (in which only one carbon is unsaturated) it is a monounsaturated fatty acid. If it has two or more double bonds it is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Here’s a brief breakdown of the benefits of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
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Monounsaturated fatty acids help reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) and could possibly raise good cholesterol (HDL) in some people. We often find this fatty acid in high-quality, nutritious foods. Most foods contain a combination of different fats. Some foods with high levels of monounsaturated fatty acids include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, avocados and peanut butter.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids can also help lower bad cholesterol and possibly increase good cholesterol in some people. These fatty acids can also reduce the risk of heart attack. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can impact cognitive and behavioral performance, neurotransmission and inflammation. Foods with the highest concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids include salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds and sunflower oil.
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Saturated fat can raise bad cholesterol levels in the body, increase inflammation and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. These are typically solid at room temperature and have no bonds in their fatty acid chain. Saturated fats are often found in foods that are poor quality carriers of nutrients. Examples include butter, lard, cheese, whole milk (including ice cream), 2% dairy products, poultry with the skin, steak, bacon, many baked foods and many packaged foods with saturated fat added in. We don’t need to give up these foods forever, but moderation is important, and we really shouldn’t eat these types of foods every day.
Some recent research has questioned the true impact of saturated fat on heart disease risk. It appears the relationship between cholesterol and heart disease is much more complicated than originally thought. Part of it has to do with the fact that different types of saturated fat can have different effects on heart disease risk.
The American Heart Association and Centers for Disease Control have not changed their guidelines for limiting all sources of saturated fat; but evidence suggests that plant-based sources (from coconut and palm) may not raise heart disease risk to the degree animal fat does. These types of saturated fats are medium-chain triglycerides, which are digested rapidly and sent directly to the liver for energy use or storage. Their rapid digestion can lead to increased energy and increased metabolism, but excessive intake could also contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
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A high intake of animal sources of saturated fat, particularly from red meat, can also increase iron in the blood. This has been shown to oxidize bad cholesterol, leading to inflammation and further heart disease risk. An overwhelming body of research continues to show saturated fat raises bad cholesterol, but it appears that other factors ultimately determine whether this results in heart disease. Some research indicates that saturated fat intake is associated with increased markers of insulin resistance and risk for type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats are quite possibly the worst of the worst. This is a fat that can turn healthy cholesterol into bad cholesterol. They are often found in deep fried foods and packaged baked goods, because they are cheap to use, extend shelf life and give foods a desirable flaky texture. Eating trans fats increases your risk for heart disease, stroke and developing diabetes. It is important to read food labels and avoid buying foods that list hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, as these are sources of trans fats. Some examples of foods that often contain trans fats are French fries, donuts, pies, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, margarine, cake, biscuits and pastries.
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As an athlete, you need to give your body clean-burning fuel to help you reach the peak of your athletic ability—and getting there means eating fat! Don’t feel guilty about using a little peanut butter on your toast, grabbing a handful of walnuts for a snack, drizzling olive oil on your salad, or adding a bit of avocado to your sandwich. What you should do, however, is cut back on the ice cream at dessert, skip on the beef more often, pass the bacon and use a little less butter on your bread.