Most of us know by now that fats aren’t evil. Some of us have even come to realize carbs are not demonic, but are actually beneficial to our health. And by some miracle, we are no longer living in fear of dying from a lack of protein without meat. However, plant-based fats are still often feared and avoided by many, especially those that watch their weight closely, perform sports, or who are bodybuilding and lifting weights going for the coveted cut look. While it may not ring true for all athletic individuals, the idea of eating fat is still somewhat gray in terms of importance. However, plant-based fats from 100 percent whole foods like avocados, raw coconut, raw nuts and seeds (especially hemp, chia, and flax), along with olives, and the fatty fruits acai and cacao, are to be enjoyed and eaten in moderation (but certainly not restriction). This isn’t only necessary to maintain a healthy, balanced mindset with food, but also for athletic performance and physical health.
If you’re an athlete and unsure about fat, here are five reasons you need plant-based fats in your diet:
1. To Treat Or Prevent Inflammation
First and foremost, plant-based fats act like lubrication to your joints, arteries, and your cells. They lower inflammation in the arteries, brain, muscle cells, the heart, and even lower stress in the body, which in turn lowers inflammation. This is critical for your performance and recovery. Many meat eaters who are athletes eat fish for this reason- the omega 3’s found in fish lower inflammation and can help shorten recovery time. But don’t head for the salmon and mackerel just yet folks; you don’t need fish in your diet and you’re better off without it. Fish get their omega 3’s from algae, and we can get our omega 3’s from algae, chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Plant-based fats are also cholesterol-free and contain raw nutrients, straight from the earth. Even saturated fats like cacao and coconut are incredibly beneficial for lowering arterial inflammation and high tryglyceride levels.
2. Increased Energy
When the body doesn’t get enough calories from either protein, carbs, or fat, fatigue will set in quickly which doesn’t take long to occur after a shortage of essential fatty acid intake. Our bodies are smart and speak to us so loudly when we take the time to listen. If you’re getting enough rest and constantly fatigued, your body is telling you it’s missing something and that may be calories from healthy fats. First, be sure you’re not eating processed, refined sugars or flours which can increase inflammation and high blood sugar that make you tired. Also be sure that you’re eating protein, carbs, and some healthy fats (even if in small amounts) at each meal. The body uses fat or carbs as a source of energy and despite the myth, neither will make you fat unless you consume one nutrient in very high, unusual amounts. Some people find that they have more energy with more carbs or more fat, but either way, don’t exclude fat from your diet if you’re an athlete and concerned about fatigue. Adding a little raw, plant-based fat can make all the difference!
Plant-based fats are also important for keeping you satisfied. Fats digest longer than protein or carbs and they contain more calories per gram (9 grams versus 4 grams in carbs and protein.) This is helpful since it can help stabilize your blood sugar, sustain you through longer periods, and will help prevent cravings and blood sugar drops while you’re at an athletic event or training.
4. Nutrient Absorption
Everyone needs nutrients, with athletes being no exception. Many of the most valuable nutrients are fat soluble which means without fat, these nutrients don’t do you too much good. Fat soluble vitamins include Vitamins A, D, E, and K which can’t be fully absorbed without some healthy fats. It’s important to include healthy, plant-based fats in your diet so you can get the most nutrition from your food. Many leafy greens are rich in Vitamin A and K. Mushrooms are rich in Vitamin D, and avocados, nuts and seeds are natural sources of Vitamin E that helps keep your arteries and skin healthy. Think of fat like a sponge of nutrition – squeeze out every last bit you can so you’re not wasting a bit!
5. Muscle Definition
Despite the myth, protein is not the only nutrient to help build muscles. In fact, protein, fats, and carbs all help build lean muscle mass. Once again, your body is a well-oiled machine, knowing what it likes and what it doesn’t. If you’re training for muscle definition, endurance or strength, be sure to eat a little healthy fat at least an hour before you work out, preferably with some carbs and protein to sustain you longer. Don’t eat too much since it might upset your stomach, but around 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fats will suffice. This gives your muscle cells exactly what they need and they’ll thank you for it as you become stronger and healthier over a shorter amount of time than by avoiding fat altogether. Fat also increases metabolic rate, contrary to the belief that it causes the opposite effect. A great meal idea pre or post workout would be: 1/3 cup oatmeal with 1 tablespoon chia seeds and 1 tablespoon raw almond butter or raw almonds, pumpkin seeds, or walnuts with fresh or frozen berries, cinnamon, and stevia if you like. Add a little more oats, fruit, or some non-dairy milk if you need more food to keep you satisfied. Or, rock a post-workout smoothie, which includes a dab or two of raw nut butter avocado, or seeds.
What Not to Eat With Healthy Fats:
When eating healthy fats, be sure to avoid oils, which aren’t whole foods. Some people do fine with them, while others don’t. If you’re not sure, eat whole food sources of fats instead of their oil derivatives. Whole food sources of fat contain all the vitamins, minerals and fiber found in the food. Your body breaks these down much easier and you’ll also be less likely to gain weight if that’s a concern too. Remember, anything with fiber from a truly whole food is more weight and muscle-friendly than a processed version of that food that’s lost the fiber and some of the nutrients. Examples include: choosing avocado, almonds, and olives over their oils and choosing coconut meat, shreds, or coconut butter instead of coconut oil. If you fare well with oil, then great! But always try to eat more whole food sources of fat whenever possible.
Also be sure to avoid high glycemic carbs like white rice, chips, cookies, dried fruit with added sugars, and flour-based, low-nutrient crackers which all spike your blood sugar and may cause weight gain when eaten with healthy fats. Go for true, whole foods like legumes, beans, whole grains (such as oats, barley, quinoa, wild rice) and fresh fruits or starchy veggies as your best source of whole food carbohydrates. Non-starchy veggies (like broccoli and cauliflower) and leafy greens are also always game no matter what health goal you have in mind.
Athlete or not, you need fats. Always choose clean plant-based fats over animal-based fats since they’re free of cholesterol, cruelty, and high amounts of processing. Like everything else, fat is necessary and will serve you best when eaten in balance, ease, and blissful moderation.
Image Source: The 5 Cleanest Source of Plant-Based Fats