In my experience, choosing the right sort of fats and eating an appropriate amount is one areas of nutrition that some endurance athletes struggle with. If I can be broadly sexist for a moment, women tend to be worried about eating too much fat, even if they are aware of the health benefits of certain types of fats, and men tend to struggle with avoiding unhealthy fats and including more healthy fats in their diet. The purpose of this article is to try to help people training for endurance sports events to eat more (enough) of the beneficial types of fats and keep less healthy types to only a small part of their diet.
There are three main types of fat: saturated, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated. It’s not as simple as “saturated fats are bad, mono- and polyunsaturated fats are good”. It depends on the form of the fat found in the food. In broad terms, fats found in their natural form in foods – yes, even butter and fatty meats – are likely to be healthier than fats found in processed foods, such as crisps, cakes, margarines and vegetable oils. For many years now, saturated fats have been demonised as being a contributory factor to heart disease. However, some researchers are now challenging the hypothesis that high consumption of saturated fat raises cholesterol, which in turn may lead to heart disease. More research attention is also being paid to potential health risks associated with excess consumption of processed fats and oils, such as hydrogenated fats, also known as trans-fats. Do not be afraid to include a moderate amount of natural saturated fat in your diet.
Diets high in mono-unsaturated fats, found in foods like olive oil and avocado, often known as the ‘Mediterranean Diet’, have been shown to be associated with health benefits, particularly for the heart. Polyunsaturated fats can be divided into two classes: omega 3 and omega 6. Omega 3 fats, found in oily fish and certain nuts and seeds, have many health benefits associated with them, certainly for the heart but also for the immune system and nervous system (including the brain). Omega 6 fats, the dominant fat in most nuts, seeds, margarines, cooking oils and many processed foods, are consumed in greater quantities nowadays than in the past, while fewer omega 3 fats are consumed. This may have adverse implications for health. It is therefore important to achieve the right ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in your diet: typically in the UK this is currently 10:1 or even as much as 20:1. Aiming for a ratio around 3-4:1 would be better: some people have argued for 2:1 or even 1:1.
Here are some tips for getting the right types of fat into your diet:
– Eat natural sources in moderation. For example, choose butter rather than margarine. Enjoy fatty meats like beef or lamb once or twice a week. Include some full fat dairy foods in your diet most days, such as Greek yogurt or cheese (unless you are intolerant to dairy). This will also boost your calcium intake.
– Fry or sauté with coconut oil in place of processed vegetable oils. Coconut is a plant saturated fat, in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are burned preferentially for energy rather than stored as adipose tissue. This makes it perfect for athletes. It also has immune boosting properties.
– Eggs contain a combination of the three different fat types, but have mostly saturated fat. Consume 6-8 per week: poached, boiled, scrambled, in omelettes, hard-boiled as snacks (take on long rides). Their high protein content makes them an excellent food for athletes and they do not raise cholesterol, as originally thought.
– Cook with olive oil at low temperatures, such as baking or casseroling, or use in salad dressings.
– Include avocado in salads or spread in sandwiches. You can even blend it into a smoothie for a creamy texture.
– Eat olives as a snack or in a salad. Their high salt content makes them a good post-workout food.
Omega 3 polyunsaturated fats
– Have oily fish 2-4 times a week: choose from salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna, crab, anchovies.
– Eat a handful of walnuts every few days
– Sprinkle flaxseed (linseed) on cereal or porridge
– Try pumpkinseeds or chia seeds as a snack
Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats
– Enjoy a handful of mixed nuts every day. Include almonds, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, cashew nuts.
– Use cold pressed nut and seed oils on salads (but don’t cook with them)
And here are the types of fats to avoid:
– Anything that says hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated fat on the label (probably best to avoid foods with packaging altogether!)
– Crisps, cakes, biscuits, pastries
– Processed meats like bacon, burgers and sausages – eat occasionally only
– Margarine and other low fat spreads
– Blended vegetable oil, sunflower oil
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk