Should runners be on a low fat diet?
Runners, in general, tend to pretty health-conscious. We exercise often, we (try to) get enough rest, we (try to) eat healthy. But sometimes eating healthy can be really confusing, especially for us athletes.
After all, there's contradictions galore out there. First you hear that fat is evil, makes you fat, and should be avoided at all costs. The next day, a high-fat, low-carb diet is the way to health and prosperity. But by the third day, fat is bad again. What is it??
Plus there's all those foods that are advertised as healthy - they scream "Non-Fat!" and "Low in Fat!" on the front of the box - enticing you to believe that they're better for you than their full-fat counterparts.
You probably have some inkling of knowing that what you need to fuel your body as an athlete and a runner (even if you're just a casual runner!! even if you're trying to lose weight) means you need different amounts than someone who doesn't exercise.
But again! The contradictions! It is confusing!
So when it comes to eating fat - should you or shouldn't you?
Fat is a necessary nutrient
Fat can get a really bad rap. But despite what the media or anyone else says, everyone needs SOME fat in their diet.
Fats, especially the right kinds of fat, are important for several other body needs, like...
Protecting our organs
Keeping us warm
Supporting cell growth
Lowering cholesterol and keeping our hearts healthy
Keeping our brains and nervous systems running optimally
Supporting our immune system
Promoting satiety (keeping us full!)
Producing hormones we need
So clearly we would be doing ourselves a BIG disservice if we didn't eat ANY type of fat in our diets! We can't completely restrict it, and eating low fat and fat free everything isn't going to do us any good!
Runners have higher protein and carbohydrate needs than "regular" folks... leaving less room for fat
As runners, we rely heavily on carbohydrates as our milage increases. And that doesn't just mean total carbohydrates in grams - although that is true. It also means that carbohydrates should make up a larger percentage of our total calories as our mileage increases. Runners who are focused on weight loss, for example, can get away with ~40-45% of their calories from carbs, while a runner who's up to 55 miles per week needs 50-55% of their calories from carbs, and runners who are up to 90+ need even more! There's a reason that the fastest runners in the world are eating something like ~70% of their total calories from carbohydrates - they. need them! They use them!
We also have higher protein needs than the average person as well. (How much protein? Find out here.) Again, that means we need more protein in total... but we also will be getting more protein as a percentage of our total calories as well.
So although our overall calorie needs are going to be higher than a sedentary person, more of those calories should come from carbohydrates and protein. Since calories come from carbs + protein + fat (+ alcohol), having more carbs and protein means that there's a smaller percentage of calories that we'll get from fat. Note: that doesn't mean none!
Whole, unprocessed foods are lower in fat
Ideally, your diet should be made mostly of whole, unprocessed foods. Think whole grains like oatmeal, starchy vegetables like potatoes, non-starchy vegetables like greens, fruits, and lean proteins like fish or tofu. These foods are naturally very low in fat, so you're not going to be eating a lot of fat if you eat these foods in their (mostly) unaltered forms.
There are some whole foods that do provide fat - olives, avocado, nuts and seeds, oils, etc. These fats are naturally occurring and are generally unprocessed. They're good for you!
Eating these types of foods means you will get some fat in your diet. It'll be healthy fat, and because it usually comes in whole food form (vs concentrated oils etc), that makes it harder to accidentally overeat it.
Processed foods (think potato chips, fast foods, bakery items, etc.) tend to have lots of added fats and oils in a concentrated package. Because of this, you're more likely to eat more than you intend or realize. Plus, processed foods can do a number on our health - they increase our risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, they make us feel more sluggish, and they can even affect our mood.
Most of the time, stick with unprocessed foods. This will give your body the nutrients it needs and provides some guidance on portion control naturally! It's also likely to put your total daily fat intake at a number that is healthy for your body.
That said, it IS okay to indulge sometimes, just do so mindfully and enjoy your treat!
So when choosing what to eat, remember these points about fat
Eating fat doesn't make you fat
Eating too many calories can lead to weight gain, but eating fat doesn't automatically translate into stored fat.
Fat provides flavor and satiety
Fat in foods does more than just provide energy, it helps keep you full and makes things taste good. You're going to be a much happier runner if you eat foods that taste good and if you aren't hungry all the time.
Not all fat is bad for you
Eating foods like nuts, salmon or tuna, olives or olive oil, grass-fed butter, and avocado are not only nutritious, but they provide health benefits as well.
Fat-free foods are often super processed and leave you unsatisfied... meaning you're more likely to eat more
Ever had a fat-free cookie or bought fat-free salad dressing? It doesn't taste good. There's usually added salt and/or sugar (which isn't healthy either). And It leaves you so unsatisfied that you usually reach for the real thing anyway. And what good does that do you?
Incorporating fats in your diet is good for your health. They keeps you running strong and running healthy. They make eating much more satisfying. Completely avoiding them is going to harm your performance. That said, eating too much fat or the wrong kinds of fat can harm your performance too. It's possible that your health and/or running are affected by the foods that you're eating.
If you want to increase your energy, run easier and faster, improve your endurance, and feel better overall then Schedule your runner's nutrition strategy call to get on the right path for reaching ALL your goals.