Eat Fat, Get Healthy?

author : Nancy Clark
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Defining "good fats" in an athlete's diet

Is it "Eat Fat, Get Fat?" … or "Eat Fat, Get Healthy?"

Remember when the Eat fat, get fat mantra prevailed? Runners avoided fat like the plague. They ate poached fish, dry salads, and steamed vegetables in efforts to reduce the risk of getting fat — to say nothing of having a heart attack. Unfortunately for many of these fat-avoiding runners, dieting went awry. Fat-free foods left them unsatisfied, with gnawing hunger and a relentless drive for fat-free frozen yogurt (fat-free = calorie free, right?) or (what the heck) a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream. They ended up gaining (not losing) weight.

Nutrition professionals learned a lesson: advising Americans to eat less fat led to the unintended consequences: of eating more sugar. A big mistake. Hence, the new 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend we include health-promoting poly- and mono-unsaturated fats in our meals—but still limit the artery-clogging saturated fats from greasy meats and fatty junk foods.

Given that Time magazine reported butter is back and the Paleo diet embraces coconut oil (high in saturated fat), many runners are left wondering whom to believe. Can we really eat foods rich in saturated fats without hurting our health? This article addresses issues related to dietary fat and your sports diet.  

What about coconut oil … is it better than olive oil?

All fats contain a variety of mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated and saturated fats in varied proportions. The harder the fat —butter, beef lard—the more saturated it is. The softer/more liquid the fat (avocado, olive oil) the better it is for your health. Coconut “oil” (called an oil because it is from a plant, but it is solid at room temperature) has some “good” fats, but it also has some “bad” fats.

To date, research on the health risks or benefits associated with long-term intake of coconut oil is sparse. Hence, you want to ask yourself, ”Why would I want to trade extra-virgin olive oil (known to be health-promoting) with coconut oil (with questionable health claims)?”  

What percent of my calories should come from fat?

The percent of total calories that should come from fat is whatever is left after consuming a foundation of grains, fruits and vegetables to fuel your muscles, and adequate protein-rich foods (lean meat, fish, beans, low-fat dairy, soy) to build and repair your muscles. The percent of total calories from fat is less critical than the type of fat.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than 10% of calories come from saturated fat. That means, if you eat 2,000 calories a day (a reducing diet from most runners), you can choose 200 calories (22 grams) of saturated fat a day. Ideally, you will choose foods rich in nutrients, such as 2% milk (3 g sat-fat per 8 ounces); low-fat cheese (3-6 g sat-fat per ounce), or hard-boiled eggs (1 g sat-fat per egg) — not on empty-calorie butter (7 g sat fat per tablespoon) or coconut oil (12 g sat-fat per tablespoon).

Unsaturated fats knock down inflammation. For athletes who damage muscles during hard exercise, reducing inflammation can enhance recovery. Hence, you want to eat healthy fats—extra virgin olive oil, avocado, all-natural peanut butter, nuts, and salmon. Their fats are not only anti-inflammatory, but also needed to absorb vitamins A,D,E and K. Plus, they help food taste better.

Enjoying some healthful fat in each meal makes the meal yummier and more satisfying—and easier for you to avert hankerings for decadent desserts. NOTE: While unsaturated fats can be health promoting, they are calorie-dense. One tablespoon of oil has 120 calories. Eat fats in portions that fit within your calorie budget!

Are fat-free foods, like skim milk and fat-free salad dressing, wise additions to a sports diet?

The answer to that question depends on what other foods are in the entire meal. The goal is not fat-free meals! That is, a fat-free breakfast of Cheerios and skim milk can leave you feeling “unfed” and hankering for a donut or two by 9:30 a.m. In comparison, choosing 2% milk on the cereal could help you feel satiated. Better yet, add whole grain toast with all-natural peanut butter to the breakfast and you will be truly content.

Similarly, a salad with fat-free dressing can leave you hankering for cookies—unless you toss in some quality calories, such as avocado, chopped walnuts, tuna and extra-virgin olive oil. Including some health-promoting fat in each meal and snack might actually help save you calories in the long run.  

Should I avoid peanut butter because it is so high in fat?

No! Research suggests people who eat nuts and peanut butter are not fatter than people who avoid those foods. While the majority of calories in peanut butter do come from fat, the good news is the fat is primarily poly- and mono-unsaturated (only 1 g sat-fat per tablespoon all-natural peanut butter). Hence, peanut and other nut-butters protect against heart disease and diabetes, two diseases related to inflammation.

Like all fats, enjoy nut butters in portions that fit within your calorie budget. I consider peanut butter to be one of the best sports foods (and diet foods) around, not just because it knocks down inflammation, but because it is yummy and satiating. That is, a lunchtime low-fat turkey sandwich leaves me hankering for dessert, but a peanut butter and honey sandwich leaves me feeling satiated for several hours; no snacks needed!  

The bottom line:

Enjoying health-promoting unsaturated fats in your sports diet reduces inflammation, enhances absorption of certain vitamins, helps curb the appetite — and adds yumminess. Just don’t overeat calories from fat —and any type of food, for that matter. The mantra Eat excess calories, get fat is more accurate than Eat fat, get fat.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD has a private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875), where she helps both fitness exercisers and competitive athletes create winning food plans. Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook, and food guides for marathoners and new runners, as well as teaching materials, are available at For online workshops, visit          


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date: February 29, 2016

Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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