Why athletes should be eating healthy fats

To train hard, you need to fuel right – a well-known fact within Australia’s athletic circles. High-performing female athletes understand that to compete well, avoid injury and keep their mood and hormones in check, eating healthy fat is key. 

‘Fat is not something to be scared of. Whether you’re a regular gym-goer or a professional athlete, fat plays a vital function in the body,’ says Sports Dietitian, Claudia Cramer.

‘It’s also extremely important to the enjoyment of food. If meal plans are too restrictive or not tasty enough, compliance wavers. Including full-fat products in your diet can improve the palatability of meals to ensure consistency long term.’

But what kinds of fat and how much fat will have you performing at your very best? 

Why healthy fats are important to female athletes

Fats are important for all women. But for trained women, the stakes are higher. 

When athletes aren’t consuming enough fat and from the right sources, both their performance and their health are on the chopping block. 

Fats play an important role in female hormone production and provide energy at lower training intensities, such as an endurance run. 

Not only are the essential fatty acids in fat vital in their own right, but they also help the absorption of other nutrients, including vitamins A, D, E and K. Important, given we aren’t what we eat – we are what we have the ability to absorb.  

Fats might also keep you healthy and training harder for longer. One 2008 study found that competitive female runners that skimped on their fats were injured more often than those who enjoyed their salads doused in olive oil. 

‘This could come down to the fact that low levels of fat consumption can compromise energy supplies, contributing to fatigue,’ says Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Bronwen Greenfield

‘It could also be due to the fact that polyunsaturated fats are known to play a role in reducing inflammation.’

Fats also contain nine calories per gram – meaning you get more energy for less food. ‘This can be useful for female athletes struggling to meet their large energy requirements or who want to increase their body weight without eating a tonne of food,’ adds Greenfield. 

Types of fat and why they matter

Yes, eating fat is important. But that doesn’t mean you should make a beeline for the KFC drive-through. The type of fat you consume also matters.

The energy contained in saturated fats and trans fats – such as those found in your favourite bucket of deep-fried chicken – are more difficult to access. Not good news for athletes who need to be fuelled quickly and efficiently in order to perform. 

Trans fats have also been shown to mess with your gut microbiome and contribute to conditions such as cardiovascular disease. 

‘Trans fatty acids (TFAs) occur in naturally occurring foods – such as butter, meats and cheese – and can be formed or added to foods during manufacture,’ explains Cramer. 

‘Manufactured TFAs are formed when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated or ‘hardened’ during processing to create foods such as margarine or oils for deep frying. 

‘There is strong evidence to suggest that TFAs increase the amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in our blood and decrease the levels of ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.’

So, how much TFA is healthy for the average adult female? No more than one per cent of your daily energy intake should come from TFAs, according to the World Health Organisation. 

Extra virgin olive oil is an excellent addition to nearly any meal. Image courtesy of Cobram Estate

So, what are healthier fat options?

The type of fats differs according to their chemical make-up. Healthy fats include polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Rather than memorising their molecular structure, an easy way to think about these fats is what they look like at room temperature. Foods containing healthy fats are usually liquid at room temperature but begin to harden once chilled, such as olive oil. Foods high in saturated fats are often solid at room temperature, such as butter and cheese.  

‘Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help to prevent excess inflammation in the body, enhancing recovery, overall health and performance,’ says Greenfield. 

Such fats can help to reduce the bad cholesterol levels in your body (unlike TFAs), lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also contain important nutrients – such as vitamin E – and essential fatty acids that the body can’t make by itself, such as omega-3 and omega-6. All of these nutrients are important to fighting free radicals, improving brain function and development, and regulating metabolism. In short, they help your body function optimally – both in your sport and in your life. 

Foods containing healthy fats 

Monounsaturated fats can be found in foods such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and nuts such as almonds, cashews and peanuts. For the polyunsaturated variety, eat lots of walnuts, brazil nuts, flaxseeds and tahini.

How much fat should athletes be eating?

Current guidelines recommend that women receive anywhere from 25 to 35 per cent of their daily energy intake from fats. With athletes usually needing to eat more calories in order to fuel their workouts, their fat consumption is also usually higher than ‘average’.

‘An athlete with a 3,000 calorie energy target might consume 65 grams to 115 grams of fat per day,’ explains Cramer, who recommends a serving of healthy fat at every meal. 

‘This is compared to someone training for everyday health who might have a 1,800 calorie energy budget, so only be consuming 40 to 70 grams of fat per day.’ 

Image courtesy of Casey Sims and WISPAA

When should an athlete consume fat

Fats take longer for you to digest – so if you’re planning to train, timing matters. 

‘During exercise, it’s important that blood flow is directed to your muscles rather than your stomach. Avoid eating very high-fat foods just before exercise as this will slow digestion and have you feeling lethargic,’ says Greenfield.

A small amount of fat, such as a handful of nuts before you hit the gym, should be fine, she adds. Any more than that and you should plan your meal at least an hour before you hit the gym.

Signs you aren’t getting enough fat

Think fatigue and poor performance in the gym or in your chosen sport, or if you are always the person with injuries. Given healthy fats’ important role in hormone regulation, female athletes also tend to lose their period when fats (and calories) drop too low.

‘Signs a trained woman is not getting enough energy – including fat – also include poor bone health, depressed and irritable mood, and a susceptibility to illness,’ adds Cramer. 

Are you an athlete or regular gym-goer looking for a more convenient way to up your healthy fat intake? Wellgrove Health’s new Keto Super Powder may be the answer. Chuck one scoop into your smoothie or morning coffee for a quick and easy way to get your daily dose of monounsaturated fats, antioxidants and vitamin E. Read more about Keto Super Powder on the Wellgrove Health website.

Main image source Phillip Barnes (WA)


Keto super powder
About Katelyn Swallow 36 Articles
Katelyn Swallow is a journalist, editor and communications professional based in Perth. She is the Editor-in-Chief of STRONG Fitness Magazine Australia, the previous editor of Women's Health and Fitness magazine, and a regular contributor to STRONG in the US.