A Fat Load of Good

Not all fats are bad. Cut back on the baddies, but make sure you keep eating the goodies for their energy and healing power.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of fats: saturated fat leads to heart disease; too much fat in our diet increases the chances of fat storage and obesity; excess fat upsets our cholesterol balance and damages our arteries; high-fat diets may be linked to higher risk of cancer. The list of negative qualities of fats seems to be endless. Yet not all fat is bad. In fact, many fats are essential.

Boost performance

What you eat directly affects your energy levels and subsequently your cycling performance in the long term, as well as before and during training and racing. While many of us look to short-term fixes to boost our energy, it has been suggested that if we include certain types of foods in our diet every day, our all-round energy levels will be raised and we’ll be less reliant on sugar-loaded snacks and drinks to get us ready for peak performance.

One of the unlikely sources of energy that some studies are suggesting could be good for athletes is fats. Fats contribute significantly to overall energy levels, both at rest and during more intense activity.

Good and bad

It’s widely accepted that there are good fats – namely monounsaturated fats, such as those found in peanuts and avocados – and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in oily fish. There are also bad fats, such as saturated fats found in cream and cheese, and hydrogenated fats, found in many vegetable oils and used in baked goods like biscuits and many types of fried foods, that do most of the damage. One gram of fat supplies nine calories – more than twice the amount we get from carbohydrates or protein. Fat is also needed to carry and store essential fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A and D.

A Danish study published in 1993 discovered that trained individuals were able to utilise considerably larger levels of fats to fuel their exercise performance, compared to untrained individuals. Traditionally, sprinting and other near-hard efforts have been considered to be totally anaerobic activities that rely solely on glycogen, or carbohydrates, for fuel. Lower levels of exercise are considered aerobic activities, which utilise a combination of fats and carbohydrates for fuel. This is one of the reasons for focusing on carbohydrates for fuelling exercise.

But a study published in 2001 completely challenged the mainstream thoughts. Focusing on the energy used by 20 Australian national track athletes across distances ranging from 200m to 1500m, it revealed that during 200m sprints, roughly 29 per cent of the energy burned came through the aerobic system. The 400m sprints used 43 per cent aerobic energy, 800m used 66 per cent aerobic energy and the 1500m sprints were as high as 84 per cent aerobic energy. This means fats could contribute more to optimal energy levels in training and performance than thought before.

Diet choices

Look for high-quality foods that will provide similarly high-quality fats containing a variety of nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K – found in oily fish, cheese, milk, eggs, nuts, seeds and meat. These vitamins support hormone release and function needed for exercise, like adrenaline and cortisol, as well as helping the growth and repair of muscle tissue between sessions.

An extra benefit of increasing the milk in your diet is that it may be more effective at hydrating you after exercise than energy drinks. A recent study by Loughborough University compared the hydration quality of water, an isotonic sports drink and milk after training, and discovered it was milk that hydrated best of all.

Fats, carbohydrates and proteins all provide energy. Though they all contribute to our overall levels of daily energy, it’s unlikely energy levels will be optimal when only one of these nutrients is eaten.

Excess intake of refined carbohydrates such as sugars and white flour will lead to reduced energy levels and an increased likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. Some fats not only provide a suitable source of reliable energy, but they also play an essential role in the growth and development of many systems within the body that are necessary for improving your performance.

Fats play a vital role in protecting the surface of the lungs and aiding the full functioning of our respiratory system, and therefore maximal oxygen uptake.

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