Fat in the athlete’s diet – how much and in what form?

Why does fat play such an important role in the diet of athletes and people losing weight? Can I reduce the amount of fats to minimum when I am on a reducing diet? And when I am trying to build muscle mass, should I eat only more proteins? In this article you will find the answers not only to the above questions, but you will also find out, which sources of fat in food products are the best and which should be avoided.

The source of fat in the diet of athletes and people losing weight should be primarily products rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

People practicing sport as recreation and professional sportsmen try to maintain quite low level of adipose tissue. The only sport discipline in which fat may be considered to be beneficial is sumo, especially that it is almost impossible to achieve such large muscle mass. In the remaining disciplines, the excess of fatty tissue unfavorably influences speed, strength and endurance.

In the case of people on a reducing diet the situation is similar – fat is their main enemy and an element of a diet that should be totally eliminated. As it turns out, such an attitude is not entirely right. Excessively low level of fatty tissue may lead to various problems, especially for women. The consequences of its deficits may be serious and long-lasting, which will be discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.

How to put theory into practice and select a proper amount of fat in a diet depending on the goal that we want to achieve? What amount of fat will be optimal for me and will not cause storing it in the most problematic body parts?

The role of fat in the athlete’s diet

Fats belong to the main nutrients, next to proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins. Lipid compounds are indispensable for life and play many important functions in our organism.

Despite this, it is inadvisable to eat products rich in fat because of their negative influence on the risk of developing circulatory system diseases, obesity and even cancers. Fat is eliminated especially often in the case of sportsmen, who are afraid of excessive adipose tissue growth. Taking care of fitness and silhouette, they limit all sources of fats to minimum – both saturated and unsaturated, forgetting about the importance of unsaturated fatty acids, especially those that our organism is not able to synthesis on its own, i.e. omega-3 and omega-6.

  • Fats accelerate muscle regeneration after workout

Omega-3 fatty acids are divided into long-chain acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and short-chain alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are contained in oily fish, but the organism may also produce them from ALA. EPA and DHA are then transformed to hormone-like substances, such as prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes. These substances are responsible for blood coagulation (thanks to them, blood clots occur less often), improving the ability of the organism to react to wounds or bacterial attack. They also increase the tension of blood vessel walls and take care of the immune system. Research proved that people eating most omega-3 fatty acids rarely experience heart attacks. A major role is played here by prostaglandins, which reduce the ability of red cells to coagulate and lower blood pressure.

Prostaglandins are especially important for sportsmen. They are responsible for the proper functioning of the respiratory, digestive and circulatory system and apart from this, they mitigate inflammations. Athlete’s muscles, as a result of intensive training, are especially prone to micro-damages and susceptible to inflammations. The latter, despite the fact that they are undesirable, play an important immunological role. Inflammations allow to not only remove dead cells from the organism, but also they build spare fibers in muscles, which may lead to muscle enlargement. Prostaglandins are therefore responsible to a large extent for after-training muscle anabolism and contribute to faster regeneration of muscles.

  • Fats increase muscle mass growth

Another group of hormones build on the basis of fat compounds are steroids, including testosterone, i.e. the most important male sex hormone, influencing muscle development, the increase of libido and life quality of men. More than two decades ago, a study was carried out which tested the relationship between the amount of fat in a diet and the level of testosterone in men. In the experiment, applying high dose of milk fat caused the drop of testosterone level by almost 50% among all volunteers.

For this reason, for a long time a radical restriction of animal fats in favor of vegetable fats had been recommended to men. Only later, research verified these erroneous views. It turned out that a diet with high content of animal fat, abundant in saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, is conducive to maintaining high level of testosterone. And the other way round: eating a lot of vegetable fats, devoid of cholesterol and rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, leads to the decrease of testosterone level.

The exception here are polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3, whose effect shows a positive influence on the production of this anabolic hormone.

One of the newest studies proves that the highest testosterone growth is caused as a result of eating the blend of fats, containing monounsaturated fatty acids, in the proportion 2:1 to saturated acids. Total intake of fats may be therefore a factor influencing the production of androgens. Low-fat diets (providing less than 20% of daily caloric need) constitute a factor that may lower testosterone level. On the other hand, extremely high supply of this nutrient will also negatively affect androgen level, which forces us to maintain moderation in fat supply. Therefore in the case of men, not only the quantity, but also the quality of fat matters. Saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids positively influence testosterone production and unsaturated acids from the family of omega-6 exhibit distinct properties.

  • Fats as a source of vitamins increasing effort abilities of the organism

If there is too little fat in your diet, vitamin D (similarly to A, E and K) will not be absorbed.

Fats are indispensable for the absorption of vitamins soluble in fats. Lipids enable not only the absorption, but also transport of these compounds and beta-carotene transformation to vitamin A. Concededly, the organism is able to produce by itself certain amounts of vitamin D under the influence of UV radiation and vitamin A from beta-carotene contained in may fruits and vegetables, but obtaining proper amount of vitamin E may constitute a much serious problem, as it is contained in proper amounts only in vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, egg yolk – and it is an important oxidant, which protects the organism against harmful attacks of free radicals. Not without a reason, it is called “the vitamin of youth” – it slows down the processes of skin aging, protects against heart diseases and – what is important to athletes – reduces muscle pain after intensive physical effort. Therefore, think twice before you eliminate nuts, seeds and vegetable oils from your diet, as you may expose yourself to the risk of damages from free radicals.

Vitamin D3 is also worth mentioning, as it considerably improves effort abilities of the organism. Research prove that people with high level of vitamin D3 achieve much better results in sport in comparison to the people, who have its level below the norm. In the meantime, the majority of us exhibit the shortages of vitamin D even in summer months, when the body is exposed to sunlight. In the winter period, the situation is much worse. Therefore, additional supplementation of vitamin D3 at the amount of ca. 2000 IU is so important.

  • Fats provide working muscles with energy

Fats are primarily the source of energy. It is concentrated energy, as fats provide around 2,5 times more energy than carbohydrates. The process of their metabolism is much more complicated, therefore it takes longer for the organism in comparison to carbohydrates.

Products rich in fats constitute an optimal energy source especially in sports, in which long-lasting effort prevails. Despite the fact, that fat metabolism is much slower than carbohydrate metabolism, it is characterized by higher efficiency.

  • Fats ensure hormonal balance of the organism

Lipids also play a very important function for women. They take part in estrogen production and also in the transformations of this hormone in its active form. Thanks to them, women may preserve menstrual cycle and hormonal balance. Extreme deficits of fat may lead to irregular menstruations or even its decline. Hormonal problems in women usually start when the level of fatty tissue drops under the threshold of 15%.

The influence of adipose tissue on sport scores

In endurance sports, such as long-distance running or cycling, the excess of adipose tissue may inhibit acceleration, reduce speed and cause faster fatigue. In explosive sports, such as sprint racing, jumping, moving fast is very important and the excess of fatty tissue slows down the motions and reduces physical efficiency. In the disciplines, in which categories are divided according to weight (e.g. box, judo) more pressure is put on body mass, especially in the season. The best results are achieved in these disciplines by people with the highest percentage of muscle mass and the lowest percentage of fatty tissue. When it comes to bodybuilders and people competing in bikini fitness contests, it looks similar. To win cups and be on the podium in a particular category, their fatty tissue has to constitute only 6-7% of body composition (in case of women only a few percent more). Even an amateur training at the gym 1-2 times a week strives for achieving relatively large muscle mass while maintaining low level of fat so that the musculature is clearly visible.

From the point of view of a sportsman, adipose tissue is an unnecessary ballast, which lowers the efficiency of physically active people.

How much fat on a reducing diet

The amount of fat on a reducing diet should amount to 15-20%. Certainly, don’t forget about the quality of the fats you consume. During weight loss, it is often recommended not only to reduce the amount of calories and fats, but also carbohydrates (by around 10-15%) and also properly increase the supply of proteins. If we reduce the amount of carbohydrates below our daily level of expended energy, glycogen supplies will decrease fast and adipose tissue burning will be intensified, but also protein oxidation – i.e. the undesired process, as it may lead to the loss of lean body mass. Therefore, increased amount of protein in a diet helps to prevent the loss of lean body mass. In order to considerably accelerate the process of weight loss, add min. 2-3 h of training a week.

How much fat in a diet for muscle mass?

The growth of lean mass may be achieved thanks to combining proper kind of strength training with a balanced diet. Strength training provides a stimulus for muscle growth, while a diet is a fuel constituting energy, which enables muscle growth at proper pace. In order to achieve muscle mass growth – without fat – it is necessary to combine both these elements.

Fats in a diet for muscle mass growth should provide 15-30% of calories. However, if you count on fast effects, you need to remember about proper caloricity of meals and protein and carbohydrates supply. To gain muscle mass, increase caloric intake by around 20%, i.e. calculate your BMR (basal metabolic rate), add your physical activity and multiply by 1,2. In practice, the majority of sportsmen need to add to their diet around 400-500 kcal. You need to take into account higher protein intake because of the performed strength training (1,4-2,0 g/kg of bodyweight). In order to build muscle mass, a very intensive training is necessary, during which muscle glycogen is our fuel. Because of this, you need to eat sufficiently large amounts of carbohydrates. If you train with low level of muscle glycogen, you risk excessive muscle breakdown, which is a contradictory effect to the intentioned one. Carbohydrates should constitute around 60% of total caloric needs.

Best and worse fat sources for sportsmen

Fatty acids may be divided into saturated and unsaturated.

Saturated fatty acids consist of carbon atoms combined with a single bond. They have hard consistency in room temperature, hence they are called solid fats. They appear mainly in animal products, such as fatty meats, lard, butter, cheese. They are very often added to processed food, e.g. biscuits, cakes and cookies. Among saturated fats, there is also palm oil used to produce margarines and confectionaries.

Saturated fatty acids are considered to be the main culprits of heart diseases, as they may increase the level of total cholesterol in blood and harmful low level density cholesterol (LDL). Health Department recommends the consumption of saturated fatty acids at the amount not exceeding 10% of the total caloric intake. Sportsmen, who aim at achieving peak sports efficiency and maintain good health should eliminate or limit to minimum saturated fatty acids, as the organism doesn’t benefit from them at all.

Unsaturated fatty acids are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fatty acids have considerably less hydrogen than saturated fatty acids, as their chains contain one double or unsaturated bond – hence their name. Oils rich in monounsaturated fatty acids are usually fluid in room temperature, but they may clot in cold temperature. The products that are their best source are: olive oil, rapeseed, almond, peanut and hazelnut oils, as well as avocado, olives, nuts and seeds.

Monounsaturated fatty acids are very beneficial to health, as they may reduce total cholesterol and especially the LDL fraction, without affecting at the same time healthy cholesterol with high density lipoproteins HDL. Health Department recommends that the intake of monounsaturated fatty acids should amount to 12% of the total caloric intake.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain the least hydrogen – their carbon chains contain two or more double bonds, hence the prefix in the name “poly-“. Oils rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids  are liquid both in room temperature and in cool. Their rich sources encompass the majority of vegetable oils and fish oils.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids may reduce the level of LDL cholesterol in blood, but they also slightly lower the level of “good” HDL cholesterol. If you eat a lot of fats daily, you should at least partially replace polyunsaturated fatty acids with monounsaturated ones. Due to the above facts, Health Department recommends that the level of polyunsaturated fatty acids should not exceed 10% of the total caloric intake a day.

Polyunsaturated acids may be divided into two families: omega-3 and omega-6. To maintain health, we need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The recommended ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is 1:4 – unfortunately our diets are more poor in the first ones. Proper proportion of Essential Fatty Acids in a diet is important from the point of view of maintaining proper functioning of the organism. As a result of metabolic changes from omega-6 fatty acids, the compounds of pro-inflammatory character are produced. Long-lasting excess of omega-6 fatty acids in a diet is conducive to weakening the functions of the immune system and excessive tendency to developing inflammations.

Below are presented the tables, in which you will find the products being the main source of particular kinds of fatty acid so that you are richer in knowledge regarding lipids and could easier chose what is best for you.

Sources of saturated fatty acids in a diet

Acid kind Sources in food Effect
myristic , palmitic and lauric acids milk fat Increase LDL cholesterol fraction („bad” cholesterol)
stearic, myristic, peanut, behenic acids solid consistency fats Lead to clots and atherosclerotic changes in blood vessels, because of which they increase the risk of coronary artery disease

Sources of monounsaturated fatty acids in a diet (omega-9)

Acid kind Sources in food Effect
Oleic acid Olive oil, rapeseed oil, unrefined, cold pressed Reduces the concentration of total cholesterol and LDL fraction

Sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids from the family omega-3 and omega-9

Acid kind Sources in food Effect
alpha-linoleic acid rapeseed oil, soya and linseed oil Lower the level of triglycerides, reduce the concentration of total cholesterol and LDL fraction
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) oily sea fish, mackerel, herring, salmon Reduce the concentration of triglycerides and lower the level of total cholesterol and LDL fraction
linoleic, peanut and docosahexaenoic acids soya, sunflower, corn and grape seed oil Lower the concentration of total cholesterol and LDL fraction

Having a range of such rich information regarding fats, how to choose these food sources that are the best?

The addition of fat to a meal inhibits the secretion of stomach juice, therefore, by including fats to your meals you will achieve the state of satiation more quickly

Oily fish, such as mackerel, fresh tuna (not canned), salmon and sardines are undoubtedly the best sources of DHA and EPA. If you are a vegetarian or if you don’t like fish, you don’t need to worry, as in certain vegetables you will find large amounts of ALA (alpha-lipoic acid). The richest vegetable sources are linseed, linseed oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, rapeseed and soya oils. Lower amounts of ALA are also contained in spinach, kale and sweet potatoes.

Currently food market is so highly developed that we may buy products enriched in omega-3, such as eggs, bread, fruit juices. When it comes to omega-6, it is easier to satisfy the needs for them, as they are often contained in the products we use: vegetable oils, margarines based on sunflower oil and many processed products prepared on the basis of these oils and fats (fried products, cookies, biscuits).

Generally, moderation in eating all kinds of fats is the most important. Remember that these products should not exceed 15-30% of your total caloric intake. The majority of people unfortunately consume larger amounts. Use spreadable fats sparingly, choose the ones containing high level of olive oil and avoid those partially containing hydrogenated vegetable oil. Choose only good quality margarines produced by the method of esterification, i.e. containing less than 1% of trans fats (producers are not obliged to provide the amount of trans isomers in the product on the packaging, therefore if you want to check if margarine contains them, look for the words “partially hydrogenated fats”). For salad dressings, choose oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids or monounsaturated fatty acids: olive oil, linseed oil, nut oils. For frying, choose rapeseed oil or coconut oil, as they have high smoke point, thanks to which during the process of heating to high temperatures, they don’t produce harmful substances. These fats are much healthier than oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids such as sunflower and corn oils that disturb the production of EPA and DHA.

Include to your diet nuts and seeds – they provide omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids and moreover, they are a source of many vitamins and nutrients. Don’t forget also about fish: eat 1-2 portions of oily sea fish a week (e.g. herring, mackerel, salmon).

How omega-3 fatty acids may support sport efficiency?

Research showed that omega-3 fatty acids may increase strength and endurance by the improvement of oxidative metabolism, i.e. a crucial energy system for all kinds of activities.

The benefits from consuming omega-3 are primarily:

  • the improvement of the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to cells, thanks to the reduction of blood viscosity;
  • the improvement of oxidative metabolism;
  • the ability to prolong training and increase its intensity;
  • the improvement of growth hormone secretion in reaction to sleep and exercise, accelerating regeneration;
  • anti-inflammatory effect, prevention of joint, tendon and ligament strains;
  • rarer inflammations due to overtraining, support of wound healing.
Tags: carbohydrates, cholesterol, fat, fatty acid, fatty acids, health, muscle, oil, omega, omega-3, omega-6, protein, supplements, testosterone, training, vitamins


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