The importance of healthy fats for athletes

Caloric needs for athletes

By focusing on the levels of proteins and carbohydrates in an athletic diet, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of healthy fats. Your body needs two classes of fatty acids to function properly: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Moderate to intensive training requires both carbohydrates and fat as fuel. Hormones and other molecules produced from fat are important for maintaining the balance of the biochemical reactions that stimulate life.

Caloric value

Fats give the body energy to stimulate activities. Where carbohydrates make up most of the energy during short or low intensity exercises, fats form the bulk of the energy during longer or more intensive workouts. Fats should never fall below 15 percent of your daily calorie intake, according to the Colorado State University Extension Service. For endurance athletes, up to 75 percent of the energy demand can be met by fat in your body.


Hormones are chemicals that control the balance of biochemical reactions in your body, stimulate growth, development, recovery and general health. Many hormones are produced from molecules derived from essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Steroid hormones that determine how your body responds to high energy needs and maintain the mineral balance and sex hormones that stimulate muscle growth come from fat. A lack of fat in your diet will prevent these hormones from being balanced, which adversely affects athletic performance and recovery.


Exercise-induced damage to your muscles triggers increases in strength and endurance. This damage also leads to inflammation of the muscles. When muscles are inflamed, they are painful and also lose strength and freedom of movement. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly necessary to regulate the level of inflammation in your body. A diet with low levels of omega-3 fats, although high in the more common omega-6 fats, can bias your body to inflammation, which prevents exercise recovery, according to the Linus Pauling Institute.

Food sources

Integrating fat into your diet does not mean that you have to give in more often to bacon cheeseburgers. Omega-6 fats are common in the modern diet; they can be found in most vegetable and nut oils, as well as in meat and dairy. Omega-3 fats are much rarer, although some are found in most foods that contain omega-6 fats. Foods rich in omega-3 fats are walnuts, cold-water fish such as salmon, linseed, soybeans, soy oil, tofu and canola oil. Many experts recommend not to eat more than four to five times as many omega-6 fats as omega-3 fats according to the Linus Pauling Institute. Athletes may want to take an omega-3 supplement that is derived from fish or krill oil to ensure balance in the diet.


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