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Dietary Fat: The Basics

We could be forgiven for thinking that dietary fat is our enemy. For the past 30  years there has been a misconception that eating fat is unhealthy. The truth is that the right types of fat can actually be our friend.

Salmon is a high-quality fat source, rich in unsaturated fats and comes with other body nourishing nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals . Photo: Deborah MacLeod

Fat has its place in a healthy diet, especially for growing athletes. It gives us energy, helps maintain our body temperature, helps us absorb important nutrients and protects our vital organs. There are various types of dietary fat each with differing roles or functions within our body. So, what are the different types of dietary fat? And which ones are going to help you perform at your peak?

What is dietary fat?

Alongside carbohydrate and protein, fat is one of the macronutrients we get from food. We get dietary fats from both plant and animal sources. They are in nuts and seeds, some fruits (avocado and olives), meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs. Dietary fat is the most energy dense of the macronutrients. Gram for gram, it gives us nearly twice as much energy as protein or carbohydrate.

There is a common misconception that eating fat makes us fat. However, the reality is that it is eating more calories than our body needs that leads to an increase in body fat. In saying this, there are some types of fat that are more beneficial for our health and performance. These are the types of fat that athletes should focus on including in their diets.

Dietary fats come from both animal and plant sources. Photo: Derek Morrison
Types of dietary fats

Understanding the types of dietary fats involves a little lesson in chemistry. First, let’s introduce fatty acids. Fatty acids are a chain of carbon atoms that have hydrogens and an acid group attached. Three fatty acids combine with a glycerol backbone to make a triglyceride, which is the main form of fat in our food and in our bodies. There are three major types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Fatty acids get their names from their chemical structure, specifically the presence and number of double bonds between the carbon atoms.

Know Your Fatty Acids
Saturated fatty acids contain no double bonds – they are fully saturated with hydrogen. They are the main type of fat in dairy, meat, palm oil and coconut oil, as well as in products such as pies, biscuits, cakes and pastries.
Monounsaturated fatty acids contain one double bond. Olives, nuts, seeds, avocados and the oils from these foods are rich sources of monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain two or more double bonds. These can be further divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fats depending on the positions of the double bonds.
There is a fourth form, trans fatty acids, which, although they are unsaturated in structure, they act like saturated fatty acids in the body. They occur in small amounts in some animal foods, but are mostly in processed foods such as pastries, cakes, biscuits and pies.
Olives and pesto are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. Photo: Derek Morrison
Dietary fats and health

Eating an excessive amount of trans fats and saturated fats over your lifetime can lead to clogged blood vessels and affect how your muscle cells use glucose. As an athlete (and someone who values participating fully in life) you want these systems working well. Trans and saturated fats are found mainly in baked and processed foods, fatty and processed meats and full-fat dairy. Watch for coconut and palm oil as well. Even though these come from plant sources they are high in saturated fat. Sometimes trans fats are disguised as hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils hiding in the ingredients list so make sure you check the label for these, too. By all means, enjoy these foods occasionally and in moderation, but try not to make them a daily feature in your diet.

On the other hand, your unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) lubricate your blood vessels and are protective against heart disease. Think of saturated and trans fats like solid butter in your blood, clogging you up and their unsaturated counterparts like olive oil keeping things flowing smoothly. Omega 3 fats have added benefits for growing athletes. They are important for brain development and have anti-inflammatory properties.


Fat is a key fuel for endurance athletes like ultra-distance runner, Glenn Sutton. Photo: Derek Morrison
Fat as a fuel for athletes

Fat can be easily stored by our body, giving us a handy fuel source to run on. This is particularly important for longer duration exercise and exercise of a lower intensity. Endurance athletes have a metabolism that uses lots of energy. Adding appropriate fats to your diet can help build fuel reserves that you need to get through all those hours of training. This will also ensure that by the time you get to the end of your big race or training session, when all your carbohydrate energy stores are long gone, you will still have the energy for that sprint finish.

In summary

It is the quality of the foods that provide fat in our diet that is really important. Ask yourself whether the fatty food you are about to eat is rich in unsaturated fats and/or gives you other nutrients as well. Salmon, nuts and avocado are high-quality fat sources as they are rich in unsaturated fats and come with other body nourishing nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals, or fibre. Choose good quality, unprocessed and natural sources of dietary fat to stay healthy and optimise your fuel levels so you can train the house down and feel great while you do.

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