Dietary Fat

By: Lindsey Guard, Dark Horse Performance Nutrition Coach.

To best understand fat and the ways in which it most benefits our diet is to first understand that we are all uniquely engineered beings. This means that your body’s ability to utilize, process and store fat is going to be unique to your physiological make-up. This rule of thumb applies to each and every macronutrient, and I will continue to reinstate this in an effort to end the “cookie cutter approach” to nutrition.


Despite the outstanding controversy over dietary fat and its application to our nutrition, the most significant components about dietary fat are quality and quantity. This is most relevant to the overweight or inactive individuals and decreases significantly as your level athleticism and activity increases.


Harmonizing Different Kinds of Fats:

An athlete’s largest down-fall to dietary fat is over-consumption due to choosing high fat animal protein. That being said, the dichotomy of avoiding animal fat is not the alternative to providing the most adequate nutrition either. Animal fats are mostly comprised of saturated fats. The only saturated fat that isn’t from an animal source is coconut oil and palm kernel oil. The ADA and other institutions have recognized this type of fat as an artery clogging, cancer causing, death trap for many years. Others who have questioned this science and found false findings in the research are only recently recognizing that the science that once determined this theory is, in fact, faulty.


In addition, because animal fat is primarily inflammatory, as compared to anti-inflammatory, the most responsible way for an athlete to mediate inflammation through dietary means are available through; fish-oil supplementation (which we will discuss in more detail in another post), eating primarily lean meats, and/or including fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and sardines into your diet. This incorporates a balance of omega 6 (inflammatory) and more omega 3 (anti-inflammatory) fats which will in turn lead to better performance, better recovery and as coach Beau Dorning says, “eating like an adult”.


Let me reiterate that in our standard American diet and even as very responsible eaters, eating enough omega 3’s is incredibly difficult without supplementation or high levels of fish. So unless you’re eating like a Salish King and having salmon and seafood on the daily, don’t undermine the necessity of incorporating omega 3’s into your diet.


Poor choice in Fats:

Another important note to incorporate is avoiding trans-fats (aka partially hydrogenated/fully hydrogenated oils). These have the least controversy because everybody pretty much knows these are the butthole of dietary fat.  They are not good for you, and there is no amount of omega 3 supplementation that make these fats okay. These are primarily found in processed foods and added to creamy delectable nut butter brands like Jiffy and Skippy. Going out to eat and eating pre-packaged foods will increase this intake, so use your packaged foods or outings sparingly and responsibly in your training (eating these types of food after a workout and on a rest day).


Physiological use of Fat:

Body fat can be utilized as energy when other sources are low, but are more difficult to tap into than glycogen (sugar) and is not advised to be your primary source of energy as a mixed-sport athlete.


Fat can be stored in the muscles and even the leanest athletes have enough IMTG (intramuscular triglycerides (fancy word for fat)) stored in their muscle to endure multiple day training events, though this isn’t necessarily advised. The fat in your muscle is not your primary energy use, but rather, used as a result of longer endurance type training or performance.


Fatty acids augment immune system function, the fluidity of our cell membrane (as this is primarily composed of lipids), growth and development in addition to transporting and storing our fat-soluble vitamins. Fat’s function is a lot more significant than merely our aesthetic appearance, which is important to remember as an athlete. Not eating enough dietary fat is detrimental to your performance and health as an individual, which is another problem we see all too much in the mixed-sport domain.  


Dietary Fat Recommendations:

The usual fat recommendation for athletes in mixed sports for both male and female range anywhere between .45-1.0 grams per lb of bodyweight.


For example:

187 lb male would eat anywhere from 93 grams (very low) to 187 (heavy gain).


I would argue that within these recommendations, these grams per body weight depend largely on your training phase. The closer you are to competition, likely, the lower your fat intake will become to help increase or maintain your VO2 max (a measurement of aerobic capacity).

Across the board, fat and protein intake remain relatively stagnant (unchanged) while carbohydrates generally have the greatest energy variation depending on training phases or seasons.



When to eat fat:

Depending on your fat intake and time of training throughout the day, it is important to spread fat intake relatively evenly across your meals with a significant decrease closer to training times. I recommend consuming significant dietary fat sources (anything >15 grams) no less than 1-2 hours prior to training. Dietary fat mediates the release of hormones that significantly decreases digestion which, in turn, can cause a sour gut and, in some cases, vomiting.


The popular studies behind fat intake post-workout have been relatively inaccurate. It is believed that eating fat immediately after workouts can inhibit absorption of post-workout carbohydrates.  Researchers did a study between two different group of athletes in which one group consumed whole milk and the other consumed the same calories in skim milk post-workout. One would assume that being able to drink twice the amount of skim milk with a higher protein value and lower dietary fat would greatly benefit the skim milk athletes. After testing, the researchers found that the whole milk athletes had a greater net protein balance than the skim milk drinkers with no real explanation or reasoning why. This is only one of the debunking studies of the post-workout fat conundrum.

Chances are, you do not need to worry much about limiting your post-workout fat intake, but rather and more importantly, eating whole and human (unprocessed) foods is the greatest way of benefiting your nutrient “timing” when it comes to dietary fat. I say unprocessed with the acception of protein and carbohydrate supplementation which will also come in a later post.


Think quality of your dietary fats in these instances, think anti-inflammatory fats and spare yourself the “hang-xiety” (when you are hangry and don’t know what to eat) behind this aspect of your post-workout nutrition.


So, which foods should I eat?

I don’t generally like to tell people exactly what they should eat, but for the sake of guidance here is a general list of some of my favorite sources of fat:


Butter- If you are going to continue eating butter, this is something worth getting from a good source. A good source means that it’s grass-fed (be careful to get strictly grass-fed and not grass finished, grass finished beef eats grain majority of their life and finish off with grass right before they are slaughtered.) I would also try to avoid Holstein-Friesian cows (black and white cows) as they are extremely over bread and usually contain higher amounts of inflammatory fats in their milk. Jersey cows are safe. Goat butter is a good alternative as well, but its gamey and expensive.


Cooking oils- Olive oil, coconut oil.

We stick with cold pressed olive oil as it doesn’t go through a heavy refining process or heating process that can damage some of the quality of the oil. The olive oils that we know are safer oils: Kirkland Organic, Corto, California Olive Ranch, McEvoy Ranch Organic.


Virgin unrefined coconut oil is another great cooking oil. If you don’t like the smell or taste of coconut, don’t even bother buying this oil because the alternative is refined coconut oil that is deodorizes and bleached, so it doesn’t contain the coconut flavor, but goes through a lot more extensive refining process that strips the oil of its benefits.


Other fats:

Avocado-  mainly made up of monounsaturated fats, this fruit contains more than 20 vitamins and minerals and is an awesome addition to any diet. The entire fruit is basically made up of fat.


Nuts and seeds- We steer away from peanuts as the types of fats in this legume are more inflammatory. Other fats like almonds, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia, and pistachios are always a great addition to meals. Just keep in mind that in there whole form, the fats in these nuts and seeds are a lot harder to absorb and mainly excreted through waste instead of absorbed into the body.


Nut butters- This is a sure way of absorbing the fats from your nuts. Seeing that the nuts are refined, the fat in nut butters are more bioavailable for absorption. There are tons of options, but I will mainly suggest almond butter (I like to add salt to mine when eating with a fruit). Some people don’t like almond butter so they opt for peanut butter. If you are eating peanut butter on a daily basis, I would always suggest making sure its A) from a good source with NO hydrogenated oils or additives and B) in moderation of maybe 2 tbsp a day. This nut butter is so inflammatory that it could be hindering your performance as an athlete.


Fish- Like I have mentioned above; mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines are some fish that contain the highest amounts of omega 3’s per ounce. Always try to buy wild caught and not farmed, as we rarely know what the farms conditions are and how much stress and antibiotics the fish have been given. In addition, fish oil pill supplementation can also be very beneficial in increasing omega 3’s, but ensuring this is another good source is very important. There are VERY deceiving labels when it comes to fish oil pills.


If there are further questions regarding your personal nutrition, there are many different ways Peak Function Nutrition can model this for all different lifestyle types. Depending on your goals as an individual, we have the ability to model habits and methods to prioritize those goals and the ways in which it matches your lifestyle.


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Justin Biays

Justin is the founder and head coach of Dark Horse Performance. He is a former United States Army 11B (infantry). He served 1 tour of duty in Afghanistan, realizing quickly that standard gym routines did not cut it for the duties he was expected to perform. He found his love for "Functional Fitness" returning from Afghanistan, then he decided it was time to try CrossFit. After leaving the Army in 2012 he attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition.