Lose weight, Run faster ? The truth behind fats.
It is very easy to think that by cutting calories/fats, we can lose weight and run faster. However, we need to grasp the concept of our body as a machine that needs proper fuelling to run efficiently.
When dealing with younger female athletes in particular; I am struck by the desire to reduce the amount of fats consumed in their diet.
Women often feel pressurised to be very thin to perform at their best.
This in turn can lead to an undernourished body that has to prioritize which bodily functions are the most important to life.
Processes that are not essential to staying alive, such as growth and reproductive function, may get less energy.
This means that the functionality of the hypothalamus (the control centre in our brain which regulates many of the hormonal fluctuations within the body), can become suppressed. This means that normal hormonal fluctuations like those that regulate the menstrual cycle may be altered or stop altogether.
The well-nourished athlete will not only perform better but will perform better longer.
Understanding why we need fats in our diet and how they help us is crucial when deciding on how to go about your eating well for sport.
Below is a guide to help you:
Fat intake for an athlete should range between 20-35% of total daily calories. We need this amount of fat for:
• Body to use vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, meaning that the fat in foods helps the intestines absorb these vitamins into the body.
• Brain development: Fat provides the structural components not only of cell membranes in the brain, but also of myelin, the fatty insulating sheath that surrounds each nerve fibre, enabling it to carry messages faster.
• Energy: Gram for gram fats are the most efficient source of food energy. Each gram of fat provides nine calories of energy for the body, compared with four calories per gram of carbohydrates and proteins.
• Healthier skin: One of the more obvious signs of fatty acid deficiency is dry, flaky skin. In addition to giving skin its rounded appeal, the layer of fat just beneath the skin acts as the body's own insulation to help regulate body temperature.
• Healthy cells: Fats are a vital part of the membrane that surrounds each cell of the body. Without a healthy cell membrane, the rest of the cell couldn't function.
• Making hormones: Fats are structural components of some of the most important substances in the body, including prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that regulate many of the body's functions. Fats regulate the production of our sex hormones. This explains why some teenage girls that are too lean, will experience delayed pubertal development and amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle).
• Pleasure: Besides being a nutritious energy source, fat adds to the appealing taste, texture and appearance of food. Fats carry flavour.
• Protective cushion for our organs: Many of the vital organs, especially the kidneys, heart, and intestines are cushioned by fat that helps protect them from injury and hold them in place.
So, what are the risks of inadequate fat consumption?
Poor Vitamin Absorption
Eating a diet that is too low in fat can interfere with the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These nutrients are fat soluble; therefore, your body needs dietary fat to utilize them.
These vitamins are stored mostly in our liver and fatty tissue. They are important for bodily functions such as growth, immunity, cell repair and blood clotting. If you're not eating enough fat to bring these vitamins into your body, they will be pooped out, and you may be at risk of vitamin deficiency.
A diet that's too low in fat; especially essential fatty acids, which your body can only get from food, could affect your mental health.
Both omega-3s and omega-6s play roles in mood and behaviour. They are the precursor to many hormones and chemicals produced in the brain. The fatty acids help to insulate nerve cells in the brain, allowing these nerve cells to better communicate with one another.
Increased Cancer Risk
Colon, breast, and prostate cancers have all been correlated with low intakes of essential fatty acids. Research has shown that a high intake of omega-3s slows prostate tumour and cancer cell growth, too. If your diet lacks healthy fats, you could be increasing your risk of cancer.
High Cholesterol and Heart Disease
When your diet is too low in fat, your body's level of HDL (the "good" cholesterol) goes down. This is NOT good because you want your HDL level to be high to help protect against heart disease.
Imbalance of Nutrients—Especially Carbs
If you're eating very little fat, then you're more likely to be consuming too much of other nutrients, namely carbs and/or protein. This affects the overall balance of your diet, which could lead to health problems.
You can last longer on a meal or snack that provides fat without feeling the need to eat again soon. When that fat is missing, your appetite may get the better of you.
Considering the health risks of not eating enough fat, it is definitely important to include enough in your diet daily. However, not all fats are created equal. Foods such as avocados, rapeseed and olive oil, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, chia seeds and flax-seed are all excellent sources of healthy fats.