Health Bites: Nutrition's F-Word

Health Bites: Nutrition's F-Word

Health Bites: Nutrition's F-Word

Oct 17, 2014 by Karen Psiaki
Health Bites: Nutrition's F-Word
By Karen Psiaki, RDN
IOC Certified in Sports Nutrition

My name is Karen, and I’m a Registered Dietitian as well as a former gymnast. Over the next several weeks, I will be writing about health and nutrition topics for gymnasts, ranging from body image and weight management to hydration, meal timing, and specific nutrient needs. If you have a nutrition question or topic you’d like me to cover, write it in the comment section below or send Gymnastike an email!

I’ve skirted around a particular topic for the past few weeks while discussing carbs and protein, but now it’s time to tackle that topic head-on. And that topic is FAT!
It’s the three-letter “F” word that strikes fear into the hearts of body-conscious gymnasts everywhere, but it’s really not as unhealthy as people tend to believe. In fact, fat is an essential nutrient and part of a healthy, complete diet. For example, it is important for brain and nerve function, hormones, and metabolism.  There are also certain “essential fatty acids” (omega-3s and omega-6s) that are important for heart health—these are found primarily in a certain type of fat called unsaturated fat. On top of all that, there are also specific vitamins (ex: A, D, E, and K) that are fat-soluble and therefore found in fat. Given all of these benefits, it’s safe to say that fat is an important part of a healthy, well-rounded diet!
So why the bad reputation? The problem isn’t fat itself, but rather the issues that arise when people eat too much of it. Fat has a higher calorie density than carbs or protein (9 vs. 4 calories/gram), so for the same quantity of food (by weight), there are more calories in a fat-containing food than one that is fat free.
And there’s a second concern with fat: unlike excess carbs and protein, which the body can store in multiple different forms, excess fat can only be stored as fat tissue within the body (for example, within arteries or as fat under the skin). So when someone eats more calories than they burn, the calories that they get from fat will automatically be stored as fat, while the calories they eat as carbs or protein can be stored in other ways. This can be frustrating for gymnasts who are striving for a lean body shape.

With all of this in mind, what are the practical recommendations for gymnasts?
Moderation is key!

• DON’T completely eliminate fat from your diet… your body needs it!
• Instead, focus on getting the right number of total calories per day (so that your body doesn’t store the extra calories as fat.)
• Focus on getting most of your fat from unsaturated fat rather than saturated fat. It’s beneficial for your heart and contains the essential fatty acids that your body needs!
• Aim for 20-30% of total daily calories from fat-containing foods, with no more than 10% of calories from saturated fat. Nutrition labels can help you calculate these numbers!

Make Smart Fat Choices

• Eat mostly unsaturated fat. Examples include nuts, avocados, flaxseed, fish, and most oils (olive, vegetable, canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, or soybean).
• Limit saturated fat. Examples include coconut or palm oil and from animal products like dairy, high-fat meats, butter, or lard. Low-fat dairy and lean meats are a better choice!
• Avoid trans-fats, a particularly unhealthy form of saturated fat that’s often found in processed foods. Not sure if a food contains trans-fat? Check the nutrition label!
• Don’t fall for the “low fat” trick! Some foods that are promoted as being low-fat are still high in calories; be sure to check nutrition labels and compare the regular vs. low-fat versions to see what is different between them.
• When cooking, avoid frying meats and other foods. Instead bake, broil, roast or grill them!
• And when you do need to use a bit of fat to cook something, choose from the unsaturated, heart-healthy oils listed above.