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How Much Fat Do Plant-Based Athletes Need?

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / How Much Fat Do Plant-Based Athletes Need?

How much fat do plant-based athletes need in their diet? Learn the facts about fat and how to make sure you have enough in your diet.

Fat has gotten a really bad reputation over the years. After all, eating fat will make you fat, right?

Not really. But that common misconception has perpetutated a fear of fat. As a matter of fact, the 1990’s was a decade filled with fat-free alternatives. Remember Snackwell cookies?

In recent years, people have stopped fearing fat and started embracing it. Keto followers eat a very high fat diet, and may claim they thrive with this style of eating.

So where’s the happy medium with fat? Here’s what you need to know about this macronutrient– the good and the bad.

What does fat do?

Fat is you body’s storage and protection mechanism.  Our ancestors used to go long periods of time without eating. During these times, stored fat provided energy for movement and bodily processes. 

Fat contains the most calories of any macronutrient—9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein. Fat also acts as protection for the major organs, such as the kidneys, heart and liver.

Lastly, fat soluble vitamins (A,D, E and K) need fat to be absorbed and used by the body.

What are the different types?

The reason that fat has moved from the “avoid” to the “eat in moderation” column is because we’ve started to differentiate the types of fat.

  • Saturated fats, aka the “bad” fats, are mostly found in animal sources like meat, eggs, cheese, butter, and milk. Saturated fat is also prevalent in many desserts, such as cupcakes, pastries, donuts and candy. 
    • Too much saturated fat can cause health problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease. 
  • Unsaturated fats, aka the “good” fats, are made up of several types of fats, including omega 3’s and omega 6’s. The omegas are essential fatty acids, meaning that the body does not make them and needs them for survival.  Therefore, it’s essential that we eat these types of fat. “Good” fats are usually found in plant sources, such as avocados, nuts, soy beans, flax seeds, oils, and fatty fish. 
    • Many studies have found that a diet rich in “good” fats can enhance brain function, may lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, and can actually reduce the risk of developing serious diseases like heart disease and cancer. 

The only difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat is the structure of the molecule.  One type of fat has more chemical bonds than the other. The takeaway is to limit the “bad” fat and embrace the “good” fat.

How much should you have in a day?

Overall, the recommendation is to 20-30% of calories from fat. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6% of calories come from saturated fat.

Below is the amount of fat you should have based on your daily caloric intake

Total Daily CaloriesCalories from FatGrams of Total FatGrams of Saturated Fat
2000400-60044-66 grams11 grams
1800360-54040- 60 grams10 grams
1600320-48035-53 grams9 grams

How does it affect athletic performance?

Carbs are the primary fuel source for energy. They are digested quickly to get glucose into the bloodstream, which powers muscles through a workout. But fat still plays a role in providing energy.

Fat is actually the main fuel source for low-intensity exercise, like yoga or pilates. Although the sounds like a good thing, fat takes a long time to digest and is an inefficient energy source. In other words, you don’t want to load the body with fat before an endurance workout.

Since fat takes so long to digest, it satisfies hunger and controls appetite. It’s best to eat fat a few hours before a workout or post-workout. If you eat too much fat before exercise, it can sit in the stomach and cause GI distress.

All in all, fat is an important part of an athlete’s diet. But think about the timing of the fat you eat in relation to your workout.

How to eat more plant-based “good” fats

If you’re unsure if you’re eating enough fat in your plant-based diet, download a FREE 7-Day Vegetarian Athlete Meal Plan. Each meal is well-balanced with plenty of healthy fats, carbs and protein.

Also, these plant-based foods are rich in healthy unsaturated fats:

Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans)

cinnamon roasted almonds

Nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter, tahini)

Seeds (chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds)

strawberries & cream chia seed pudding recipe

Avocado

Olive oil

Recipe for Mini Chocolate Olive Oil Fig Cake

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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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