When we’re trying to look, feel and perform our best, fat often gets a bad rap. Our bodies need dietary fat to maintain energy reserves, make hormones and chemicals, help make up the lining of all of our cells (including nerve cells), protect our organs, and help us feel full after meals. Protein, carbohydrates, and fat all work together to help you achieve top performance, healthy body composition, and create delicious and satisfying meals.
Fat gets much of the blame for making us fat because dietary fat contains more than double the calories of protein or carbohydrates, so it is much easier to over-consume and can contribute to weight gain quickly. What is the right amount to make sure you get enough but not too much? Similar to estimating how much protein you need in your diet, you can estimate the amount of fat you need as a percentage of your total calorie intake. The recommended intake ranges from 20-35% of total calories (or 44-78 grams per day based on a 2000 calorie diet). Most athletes stay at the lower end of this range to allow for adequate amounts of carbohydrates to fuel their performance and lean protein for muscle synthesis and recovery. If you are dieting and prefer larger portions, I recommend that you stay at the lower end of the range. If you are the type of person who prefers smaller portions of richer foods, you can stay at the upper end of the range.
Here are three more tips to help you figure out fat:
- Not all fats are created equal. To ensure you’re getting high quality fats, focus on plant sources, including avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, and vegetable oils, as well as fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. The unsaturated fats found in these foods help maintain heart health as opposed to saturated fats from fatty meats, butter, and full-fat dairy which can do more harm than good.
- Keep an eye on portion sizes when it comes to fat to keep your waist line in check. When using oil to cook, aim for about ½ Tablespoon per person if you are watching your weight, and up to a tablespoon per person if your goal is to maintain your weight. Lightly dress salads with oil based dressing instead of drenching them. And don’t snack on nuts and seeds directly from large containers or bags – measure out a serving (1/4) and place in a small dish or baggie to keep portions and calories under control.
- Include some fat with each meal and most snacks. Fat helps you feel satiated (full), adds flavor, and boosts the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. It’s not a great idea, however, to have too much fat right before a workout. While fat stores are helpful for endurance activity because they burn slowly, fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and protein—making it a far less desirable source of fuel during a work-out.