As an athlete, you know your diet is key to performing your best. But do you ever find yourself fatiguing early during training? Or maybe you're constantly eating but never seem to feel full. It might be time to look at the source of fuel in your diet. Maybe your plate is missing some key healthy fats.
Here, three registered dietitians break down exactly what healthy fats are, why you should be eating them and how to incorporate them into your diet.
Why is it important to incorporate healthy fats into your diet?
"Including good-for-you sources of fat is key for everything from satiety and mouthfeel to reducing cardiovascular disease risk, supporting cognition, and maintaining proper hormone levels, to name a few. The list truly goes on and on," Anthea Levi, RD, registered dietitian at the private practice Culina Health, tells Lively.
It is important to incorporate healthy fats into your diet for several reasons. Firstly, fat is a necessary macronutrient group that provides energy for the body. It also helps to insulate organs and tissues, form signaling molecules throughout the body, and is important for brain health and cognition. Fats help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, which are essential for optimal health, Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN of Bucket List Tummy tells Lively. Deficiencies in these vitamins can impact bone health and structure, mood and cognition, inflammatory processes and more.
Fat is one of the three macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) and plays many roles in the body. "It provides energy, is part of the formation of certain hormones, and is necessary to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat also helps strengthen cell membranes, which can benefit hydration," Amy Davis, RD, LDN tells Lively.
How can eating healthy fats benefit athletes?
"When it comes to athletes, consuming adequate amounts of healthy fats is essential for maintaining intramuscular fat stores, which can be used as a source of energy during exercise," Levi says.
Fueling with healthy fats is also critical for powering your workouts. Without enough fat in your diet, the body will deplete glycogen (aka glucose stored in the muscles) quicker. This glycogen depletion can diminish performance and bring on fatigue, meaning you won’t be able to push yourself to your full potential.
Plus, omega-3 fatty acids, a component of unsaturated fats, help reduce inflammation in the body, which can be particularly important for athletes recovering from workouts, Schlicter says.
What are examples of healthy fats?
Unsaturated fatty acids are good fats to eat. They are divided into omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, Schlicter explains.
It's important to note that the typical American diet has a disproportionate amount of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, so general recommendations are to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets, Schlicter says. "The main types of omega-3 fatty acids to include are EPA and DHA. These are essential to get through the diet because our bodies cannot make them," says Schlicter.
These can be found in foods like fatty fish, cod liver oil, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and avocados. EPA and DHA are only in seafood, Levi says. And, there are other types of omega-3s in walnuts and chia seeds.
Other healthy fats are found in nuts, nut butters (yes, you can find healthy fats in peanut butter), seeds, tahini, avocado, fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel, olives, and olive and avocado oils.
"Organic and grass-fed dairy products (like Greek yogurt) can also be a great source of protein and fat for those who tolerate it well, plus you'll get the added bonus of gut-friendly probiotics from the yogurt," Levi says.
What is the healthiest fat?
There are a few front-runners when it comes to the healthiest healthy fats.
Monounsaturated fatty acids, which occur in large amounts in nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil are great for heart health because they can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, says Levi.
If your health goals include weight loss, can eating healthy fats help?
"It may sound counterintuitive, but putting healthy fats on your plate can absolutely help you hit your weight loss goals," Levi explains.
Why? Fat fills you up. It takes longer for the body to digest fats compared to refined carbs, (such as white bread), which keeps you feeling full longer.
Think about eating a boring salad — often you immediately crave something sweet or carb-rich. You can still eat that salad, but you'll want to add more healthy fats such as avocado, toasted walnuts and a tahini-based dressing. These additions up the satiety factor and in turn prevent cravings later in the afternoon, says Levi. Less cravings means less snacking which can mean less weight gain over time.
You'll just want to take into account the serving size, as a typical serving of fats can vary depending on what source it is, Davis says. Generally, a serving is 1 teaspoon of oil, 2 tablespoons of salad dressing or fat-based sauce, 1/4 an avocado or 1/2 ounce of nuts.