Athletes Need to Eat Fat!
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Do your meals look like this?
Breakfast: cereal with skim milk, banana, orange juice
Lunch: bagel, nonfat yogurt, pretzels, water
Snack: energy bar, apple
Dinner: salad with nonfat dressing, pasta in tomato sauce, bread
Dessert: nonfat cookies, frozen yogurt
If so, you may have found that you are dozing at your desk in the afternoon, having hunger pangs between meals, thinking about pizza and cookies, or feeling sluggish during long workouts. Adding a little fat to your meals may just be the thing that helps.
Athletes Need More Than Carbs
Athletes know that carbohydrates are good for them. This is because they are the energy source that muscles prefer during exercise. About 45 to 65% of our diet should come from carbs. But to improve endurance, a carbohydrate-rich diet should also include fat. A diet that includes a moderate amount of fat will allow you to workout longer before you become tired.
A restrictive diet makes it hard for athletes to get the energy they need to perform at their best. Eating foods that contain fat is one way for athletes to meet their energy needs and improve performance.
Fat to Fuel Muscles
Hard-working muscles are hungry for calories from fat, but they are also hungry for the fat itself. Training helps our muscles burn fat. As we get more fit, we still burn more carbs than fat, but fat plays a greater role. It gives us energy and helps us use our carbs for things like that big hill coming up at mile 20 of our run.
The high-pretzel, low-peanut diets that most fat avoiders are proud of may be leaving them short on muscle-bound fat. This forces the body to depend on stored carbs. In short, the more fat we have to draw on, the longer we can exercise before we get tired.
Eating Fat Without Getting Fat
We will only gain weight if we take in more calories than we burn. In fact, many of us who avoid fat may not be eating enough calories to meet our high energy needs. Adding a little fat can help us increase our calorie intake to where it should be. It may also make those nagging hunger pains go away.
Choose Your Fats Wisely
The total fat limit for adults is 20 to 35% of our total calories. We need fats, but not all fats are the same.
Since trans fatty acids are the most damaging to the heart, athletes should limit their intake of:
Saturated fats such as that found in beef and milk may not be as harmful as once thought. In contrast, monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil and canola oil) can help to improve health. Polyunsaturated fats are also thought to be healthy. Foods that have polyunsaturated fats are:
Getting Over Your Fear
Here are some tips to slowly start adding in some fat:
Try some of these tips for a week and see if you notice a change. You may just find that you are less hungry in the afternoons and having more energy during workouts.
American Society for Nutrition
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
ACME fit society page. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: https://www.acsm.org/docs/fit-society-page/2011springfspn_nutrition.pdf?sfvrsn=0. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 and online materials. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials. Accessed June 22, 2021.
Gillespie H. Basic nutrition for athletes. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed June 22, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/22/2021
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.
To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.