As athletes, our number one goal is to be the best at our sport. A close second is portraying that image to the public via a sculpted, lean body composition. As your coaches, it is our goal to help you with both! With that being said, there is a fine line between being lean and too lean. Today we are going to discuss the importance of maintaining some body fat while training in your sport.
To begin, let us preface this by letting you know what we mean by “maintaining fat”– this means men having no less than 8% body fat and women no less than 14%, as there are no added benefits when body fat drops lower than this, rather it becomes a health risk. For the purpose of this post, we are using the “healthy” body fat percent ranges of 8%-20% for men and 14%-25% for women. These vary person to person given a variety of factors, so if you do not fall within these ranges, don’t be alarmed, just reach out to us with any questions and we would be happy to discuss with you.
Let’s start broad and narrow in as we go. Big Picture: maintaining body fat while in a training phase of your sport will aid in strength gains and recovery. How does this make any sense, you ask? For one, think of your body fat as your energy reserves. Once your glycogen stores are depleted, your body will turn to fat to burn as fuel. Not enough fat and your body turns to muscle as fuel and that is a big NO NO. Also noteworthy- without enough fat, our bodies cannot properly store glycogen. Even if you are super lean and eating tons of carbs, without the fat, they lose all of their glory if they aren’t being stored properly. So if you’re jealous of the person eating 400+ carbs a day with little fat, don’t be. You’re far better off eating a moderate amount of carbs and relying on glorious healthy fats to do their job.
Our fat acts as an insulator for our hormones and without enough of it, our bodies become taxed faster, which is added stress to our bodies. If our goal is to recover from the stressors of training, then this is not the way to do it. Since we are talking hormones, low body fat, as well as too low calorie consumption, results in raised cortisol levels which inhibits our immune system, making getting sick more likely. For an athlete, getting sick is a huge set back. Other hormones negatively affected by low fat stores are leptin and testosterone. The lower our body fat, the lower our leptin levels are- when leptin drops, so does testosterone. I think we all know how testosterone levels affect training (not to mention other things…)
Now let’s talk about the “healthy” fats that should make up the fat in our diet in an effort to aid in our training and recovery. The most important fats that we need to take in are essential fatty acids. These are essential because our body cannot manufacture them on our own. For this reason, it is imperative that we are getting them from our diet. There are two categories of essential fatty acids; omega-3 and omega-6. Listed below are some of the benefits of these fats:
- Helps regulate oxygen use and rids our bodies of waste more efficiently
- Keeps our exocrine and endocrine glands active
- Helps lubricate joints and combined with other important vitamins, it helps with mineralization of the bones
- Helps build the immune system and keeps our cardiovascular systems in check
- Helps fight against tumors
- Improves digestion
- Decreases inflammation
- Improves neurological function (low levels result in irritability and brain fog)
A few of our favorite sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are wild caught salmon, grass fed butter, organic, pasture raised poultry, organic eggs, walnuts, hemp seeds, and flaxseed/flaxseed oil. You can also obtain these needed fatty acids by investing in a high quality fish or krill oil supplement like this one from Onnit.
Our other recommended and favorite sources of healthy fats to include in your diet are avocado/avocado oil, coconut oil or MCT oil, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and all natural nut butters.
Now that you know the WHY for keeping fat in your diet and on your body, let us tell you that this does not mean that you have the approval to go and gain a bunch of unnecessary body fat. We are talking about healthy body fat ranges for athletes. This also doesn’t mean that we are carb cops and will deprive you of carbs, or make your diet only fats. We just want to shine a light on the importance of fat in a diet for training purposes at the cellular level. We’ve barely touched on all of the wonders of how fat interacts in our bodies (we will save that for another blog on another day!), but we hope that we’ve given you enough information to help understand its significance!
And as always, please reach out with any questions!