The correct amount of fats in the daily diet is a long-time dilemma, not only for those who are over-weight, those who struggle between calories and the response of the scale, but mostly so for athletes, whose target is to optimize the ratio between lean mass and lipid storage, to reach the best performance. This dilemma becomes indeed extreme for all those athletes, like cyclist, marathon runners or also those practising fighting sports, where body weight influence competition performance and it is really important to keep the strongest muscular mass with the minimum body fat deposits.
If compared to carbs and proteins, fats (lipids) are the most caloric macronutrients: one single gram of lipids brings 9kcal, more than the double of the energy contained in one gram of carbs or proteins; for this reason they have been always considered as enemies of a slimming diet, but also, more often, have been considered as not being advantageous for athletes, and, as such, limited in the daily diet.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dieteticshas recently published a paper in which the contribution of lipids in a normal diet is re-evaluated, positively, and a general consideration is done towards the qualitative characteristics of fats, instead of the quantitative side only. Choosing good fats is important, more than simply limiting how much fats are consumed daily.
For many years, fat rich foods, like nuts, like hazelnuts or almonds, or like oilseeds, have been removed from the daily diets only looking at their higher caloric intake, with no consideration for their positive effects on wellbeing or, indeed, on athletic performance.
These foods, fat rich and highly energetic, are really a source of “good” fats, these latter being precious nutritional compounds that preserve our cells from oxidative damages and reduce inflammation, fighting in some way the effects of “bad” fats and their negative impact on our body. We might consider “bad” fats to be, e.g., fully saturated animal fats, or highly processed fats used in salty or sweet snacks.
An athlete, mainly during high intensity training, might suffer from oxidative stress that might reduce normal immunological defences, increase the probability of injuries thus compromising regular training as well as competitions.
Preventing these problems might effectively be achieved with a correct and controlled diet; each athlete should be encouraged to choose, daily, from a wide variety of nutrients with natural anti-inflammatory activity, within which, aside from the classical vitamins & minerals premixes, the correct dose of mono- and poli- unsaturated fats, like the ones olive oils, dried fruits, avocado, seeds, dark chocolate, some algae are loaded with, do play a key role.
The American College of Sport Medicine states clearly that an athlete’s diet should be formulated in such a way that not less than 20% but preferably 30% of the daily caloric intake comes from fats; a lower amount might compromise the absorption of certain vitamins and a shortage or deficit of some essential fatty acids.
Following these guidelines, and always considering carefully the energy need of each phase of the sport season, there is no risk of gaining weight or increasing the adipose (fatty) mass.
Choosing and adding the correct fats in the daily diet will, instead, result in improved wellbeing and better athletic performance.
Thomas DT et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Mar;116(3):501-28
Buonocore D, et al. Anti-inflammatory Dietary Interventions and Supplements to Improve Performance during Athletic Training. J Am Coll Nutr. 2015;34 Suppl 1:62-7.