Typically, athletes are suggested to keep their fat intake low for their athletic performance. Unfortunately, some athletes interpret this advice as a total avoidance of fat intake or they try to keep it at a bare minimum. This cannot only be detrimental to performance, but also to overall health.
Just like carbohydrates and protein, not all fats are equal in how they behave and affect your body. The “healthy” fats are the types of fat that are required for health, energy production, regulation of cell functions, and healing of injuries. Many of these are the essential fatty acids (EFAs) or the fats that we need from our environment that the body does not produce, such as linoleic acid, alpha-linoleic acid and fish oils. The “bad” fats interfere with health and slow down athletic performance.
Fats Regulating Energy Production
There are two factors that affect how a fat affects energy production: 1) its chain length, or the number of carbon atoms it consists of, and 2) how many double bonds they have.
Chain length
Chain length concerns saturated fats primarily. The term “saturated fat” refers to the chemical structure of the fat. Saturated fats consist of fatty acids whose carbons are joined by single bonds. Carbon, by nature, can form four bonds. In these fats, it is usually bonded to another carbon atom or a hydrogen atom, unless it is the last carbon on the molecule. These fats do not contain any double bonds.
The shorter the saturated fatty acid, the less it inhibits energy production. Our body easily metabolizes short-chain fatty acids to produce energy. These are 4 to 12 carbon atoms in length and consist of a class of saturated fats called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are 6 to 12 carbon lengths.
As much as the shorter chain fatty acids speed up metabolism, the opposite can be said of long chain fatty acids. These inhibit energy production. The longer they are, the more they slow down energy production because the body takes more energy to metabolize them. These are the fats found in tropical oils (coconut, palm and palm kernel oils), land animals, butter, margarine and certain vegetable oils.
Degree of Unsaturation
The more double bonds in a fatty acid, the more it speeds up metabolism and stimulates energy production. So a saturated fatty acid of a particular chain length is “slower” than an unsaturated fatty acid of the same carbon chain length.
Also, the greater the double bonds present in a fatty acid, the more it increases oxidation rate, metabolic rate, and energy production.
Fat for Energy
When it comes to deciding which types of fats an athlete’s diet should contain, they should consume short-chain fatty acids, like MCTs, and omega-3 fats such as alpha-linoleic acid, linoleic acid (found in flax seeds and flax oil) and fish oils.
At the same time, they should avoid the long-chain saturated fats that slow them down. These are found in foods that are processed, altered, fried, deep-fried, hydrogenated, or rancid (rotten). All of these interfere with cellular functions and some inhibit cell oxidation and energy levels. Some injure cell membranes, tissues and arteries. Others interfere with digestive processes, resulting in poorer absorption of nutrients, bowel irritation, and allergic reactions that require more energy to process, leaving less for performance.
Anecdotally, athletes who start taking omega-3’s report increased endurance, perform better, and recover from fatigue after exercise quicker than they did before taking omega-3’s. Although this phenomenon is not totally understood, this may be because of the omega-3’s role in oxygen transfer in the lungs (i.e. oxidation).
Because of their increase of oxidation and metabolic rate, omega-3’s and other highly unsaturated fatty acids such as stearidonic, gamma-linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty abbreviated GLA), eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) prevent fat deposition. These help people lose excess body fat and water held in tissues.
Fat for Healing
Another area of athletic performance that healthy fats are getting some attention is their role in healing. We know that omega-3’s have an anti-inflammatory role in our bodies, but whether or not it is strong enough to produce a significant improvement in recovery time may still be debatable. However, this is still a relatively new area that needs a lot more human studies to confirm whether or not healthy fatty acids like omega-3’s could speed recovery.
Anecdotally, athletes with bruises and sprains heal faster when they include omega-3’s in their diet. According to these studies, minor injuries take only one-quarter to one-third of the healing time previously required. This is a difficult claim to support. How do you know each injury was of the same severity? Because of the number of unknown factors involved in determining how effective omega-3’s are, you should still resort to more dependable measures of recovering from injuries, such as ice, rest and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Nevertheless, because of the multiple uses of omega-3’s and essential fatty acids (EFAs) in our diet, we should certainly be taking them. How much? The recommendations vary. One “fat expert” named Dr. Udo Erasmus believes that you should take enough EFAs to make your skin feel velvety. If you can scratch a letter on your hand, then it is too dry. This could range from 1-5 tablespoons of flax seed oil per day.
Dr. Erasmus also believes that we should ingest optimal ratios of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are found in abundance in our Western diet because of all of the excessive heating and processing we do to our fats. Healthy omega-3’s can be broken down into unhealthy omega-6’s (although not all are unhealthy, such as GLA). Thus, if you continue eating primarily omega-6 fatty acids, then you will become omega-3 deficient. The same is true vice versa. If you rely on a great omega-3 source of fats, such as flax seed oil only, then you can actually become omega-6 deficient. Therefore, Dr. Erasmus has his own product called Udo’s Perfected Blend in which he has what is believed to be the optimal amount of omega-3:omega-6 ratio, as well as some MCTs. This oil has a pleasant nutty taste that can be easily mixed into yogurt, protein shakes, salads, or whatever you think might work for you.
Fish oil is another alternative. At one time, the fear was ingesting fish oil from fish contaminated with mercury, pesticides, heavy metals, or an assortment of toxic substances our industrialized world dumps into the ocean. However, today, there is more public pressure to create purified oils that do not have these contaminants in them. Today there are a number of brands that have their fish oils independently lab tested for contaminants and toxins. Many brands now advertise this.
Choosing an Oil
Just like fresh produce, highly unsaturated fats are sensitive to light, oxygen, heat, processing and time and they can produce toxic substances when exposed to any of these. These substances will inhibit energy production and performance.
Therefore, choose oils that are bottled in a dark bottle in glass and refrigerated. Make sure to keep it refrigerated at home and finish the bottle within 3 to 6 weeks.