What about fat?

Fat and protein are both essential for a balanced nutritional intake and a healthy body. Athletes, particularly endurance athletes, do rely on fat as an energy source when training and racing. Does this mean that all endurance athletes should consume a high fat diet? I would answer this with a NO at this stage.

There have been discussions about athletes becoming “fat adapted” by training on a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. It should be stressed that not all of the reports are positive and that training and competition performance would initially suffer due to reducing carbohydrate. What we definitely see working now in endurance athletes is the consumption of carbohydrate at regular intervals over the course of their activity.

So far studies looking at the manipulation of fat and carbohydrate intake in athletes remain in the negative – so maybe we have not looked at the right combination of fat and carbohydrate yet – or allowed enough time for fat adaptation to take place, or where exactly to apply a higher fat intake. More to come on this in the future I am sure.

Fat for fuel?

The body will use fat for fuel in lower levels of intensity. The better trained you are as an athlete the more fat you will use for fuel during these lower levels of exercise intensity – so in effect this saves the glycogen stored in the muscle for later or for more intense levels of activity.

One of the attractions with adding fat to a diet is due to its energy density. It provides twice the amount of energy compared to carbohydrate. So for athletes with high energy requirements adding fat to your diet will add energy without the extra “bulk” from extra carbohydrate foods.

Should I have a high fat diet?

When looking at what is written by other athletes and written by advocates of a high fat and any other dietary approach, there are points to consider:

  1. Does this apply to me? Are the results what I am after?
  2. How does this method make me feel physically and mentally?
  3. How practical is it for me to follow this routine?
  4. Am I recovering properly after my training sessions and races following this routine?
  5. Has it been tested in a situation that applies to me?

The answer is ultimately up to the individual – some critical thinking needs to be applied for each athlete and their situation.

What about Protein?

The focus seems to have shifted away from using protein during exercise in recent times. Protein is still essential in the daily diet of all levels of athlete. Basically protein is used to keep the body in good repair – a small amount of amino acids are used during exercise as fuel and muscles are damaged during exercise. The role of protein is for recovery and muscle repair.

Consuming a small amount of protein during endurance activity may make you feel better and satisfy hunger (if you do get hungry on long training sessions or events) but it will not make you go faster. All of the research suggests that it will make you able to go further before exhaustion but it wont make you get there any faster – that is the job of glycogen (carbohydrate).

Rebecca Hay – Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Sports Dietitian, Nutrition Consultant