What You Need to Know about Fats

Read this clear and simple primer on dietary fat. Are you getting enough of the right types of fat in your diet?

Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part series on macronutrients.

Making sense of nutrition labels can be an exercise in futility if you don't know what you're looking for. The data on nutritional fats is particulalry perplexing. Saturated, unsaturated, trans—it can all be confusing. To keep you from getting lost in the weeds, I'm going to break them down for you with this handy primer.

Good vs. Bad Fats

Saturated fats at high levels are linked to heart disease and increased cholesterol levels. They are solid at room temperature and usually come in the form of animal fat. Cholesterol levels less than 200 are considered healthy, and levels over 240 are considered high risk for heart disease. Foods high in saturated fat should be avoided, or at least consumed in moderation.

Unsaturated fatty acids are liquids at room temperature. They include soy, corn, sunflower, olive, and peanut oils. Unsaturated fats are a very important part of an athlete's diet, because they can they can help lower cholesterol levels.

Trans fat, a type of unsaturated fat present in fried foods, actually increases cholesterol levels more that saturated fatty acids. Athletes should not consume trans fats.

Essential Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential in your diet. Fish, walnuts, flaxseed, beef, poultry, sunflower oil and corn oil are the main sources. Omega-3 and 6 help regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and in some instances descrease muscle soreness and boost mental health. People who eat a lot of fish consume adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. If you don't, you may benefit from a fish oil supplement.

How Much Fat Should An Athlete Consume?

The average person should consume 20 to 35 percent of their total calories from fat, with less than 10 percent of that saturated. Athletes should be on the higher end of that range. Diets with extremely low fat intake can actually hurt an athlete's performance.

Food Options

Many healthy foods contain fat, including:

  • Nuts (peanuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds, pecans)
  • Natural peanut butter (not the processed kind, which contains hydrogenated oils that are high in saturated fat.)
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • The healthy oils mentioned above
  • Fish
  • Soy milk

Foods to Avoid:

  • Anything fried
  • Ice cream
  • Candy bars
  • Whole milk
  • Cheese (in high amounts)
  • Pastries, donuts, cookies
  • Popcorn and potato chips
  • Butter
  • Fatty cuts of meat (in high amounts)

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