The Benefits of Healthy Fats for Runners: Why You Need to Eat Fat for Optimal Athletic Performance

Why You Should Be Eating Healthy Fats as a Runner

I have been eagerly anticipating Shalane Flanagan’s Eat Slow, Run Fast cookbook since it was first announced early last year. Not only is Flanagan one of the United States’ most talented female marathoners, but she also looks incredibly strong and healthy. She is not the underfed, skinny-fat stereotype of a female distance runner.

I know that Flanagan’s cookbook will not make me as fast or lean as her. But one of the reasons I’m eager for its release next week is because of Flanagan’s food philosophy: minimally processed foods and plenty of healthy fats. Not only does her cookbook include foods that runners should eat, it features recipes that runners want to eat.

Flanagan explained in an ESPNW interview: For me, I noticed that I’m not consuming as much sugar because of the added good fats in my diet. Those healthy fats are a healing agent and help me absorb the nutrients I’m consuming. Overall, I feel more satisfied; I don’t have these massive cravings anymore.”

Her co-author, nutritionist and Shalane’s teammate at Chapel Hill Elyse Kopecky, even cured athletic amenorrhea and overcame a series of stress fractures when she lived in Switzerland and starting eating a higher fat diet.  

As someone who grew up in the 1990s (I was just barely an 80’s baby, born in September 1989), I used to perceive all fats as bad. I remember learning in health class not to eat any foods that had more than 30% calories from fat. I used to avoid avocados and nuts because I thought they were unhealthy because of how high in fat they were.

Instead, I ate sugary fat-free yogurt, skim milk, and egg whites, all while missing out for years on the deliciousness that is guacamole.

Now, my diet is comprised of approximately 30% of my daily calories from fat – from healthy, mostly unsaturated fat sources such as olive oil, whole eggs, chia seeds, avocados, pepitas, tahini (sesame seed paste), natural peanut butter, and fish.

Research and anecdotal evidence from athletes even indicate that the saturated fat in dairy and meat is beneficial for athletes.

I’m sure many of you eat plenty of healthy fats in your diet. But for those of you who do not, today I want to share with you the benefits of healthy fats for runners as part of a balanced, nutritious diet geared towards optimal athletic performance and overall health.

The Benefits of Healthy Fats for Runners: Why You Need to Eat Fat for Optimal Athletic Performance

Four Benefits of Healthy Fats for Runners

1. Eating Enough Fat Controls Sugar Cravings

I will admit that I try to minimize my processed/refined sugar consumption. I let myself have treats such as a donut or a cookie from time to time, because I do not believe in restriction. Most days my sugar comes from 85% dark chocolate, fruit, and unrefined sources such as maple syrup and honey ( in small portions).

(I do drink alcohol, but most alcohol actually contains barely any sugar unless you add a mixer. The fermentation process eats up most of the sugars.)

Part of this is because of my health: I have been diagnosed with both lean PCOS and endometriosis-like symptoms and one of the best alterations to one’s diet for these health issues is through diet, particularly minimizing sugar and simple carbohydrate consumption.

By eating the full-fat, real-food version of foods (plain vs. fat-free yogurt, eggs vs. egg whites, full fat nut butters vs reduced fat peanut butter), you can eliminate unnecessary added sugar. Most lower fat versions of foods have sugar added to them to compensate for flavor). 

One surprising thing I noticed since I starting adding more fats into my diet over the past couple years: my sugar cravings significantly decreased. Maybe it’s because fat helps me feel fuller longer, or maybe it’s because since I wasn’t eating enough fat, my body wanted it in a quick form – such as baked goods.

2. Foods with Healthy Fats Contain More Nutrients than Low-fat Alternatives

Take eggs, for example. Egg whites may leave out the fat and calories, but they also leave out the nutrients. Essentially, egg whites are pure protein. The egg yolk contains vitamin B-12, vitamin B6, omega 3 fatty acids, folate, and many other vitamins and minerals. Especially if you do not eat a lot of meat (or any meat at all), you need these nutrients in your diet.

Additionally, many vitamins are fat-soluble – which means you need to eat fat for your body to fully absorb them.

3. Better Fuel Efficiency during Long Runs

I do use Hammer gels for very long runs and races, but for long runs under 12 miles I skip the gels unless I’m practicing race day fueling for the half. I’m hoping to push that to 14-15 miles over the course of marathon training (I’ll share more about my training low/racing high fueling plan next week). I fatigue less quickly and feel less reliant on gels during long runs than I did a couple years. 

I don’t know if this is exactly a consequence of eating more fat/less sugar and becoming a better fat burner, or simply gaining more experience as a long distance runner – metabolism is a very complicated subject. But I do know that the more fat I eat, the less dependent I feel upon gels during long runs and the less ravenous I feel after a long run.

4. Better Running without Injury

Lower injury risk and more energy during workouts – that’s every runner’s desire, right? A 2003 University of Buffalo study concluded tht female athletes (particularly endurance athletes) who restricted their dietary fat intake had a higher risk of injury and higher levels of fatigue during training.

What’s most interesting is that the low-fat diet athletes and high-fat diet athletes ate the same amounts of carbohydrates, fiber, protein, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and iron. For the group that did not eat enough fat, they suffered from both low energy availability and poor nutrient absorption.

If that’s not enough to convince you to eat healthy fats in your diet as a runner, I don’t know what is.

How to Add Healthy Fats to Your Diet

Of course, consult a registered dietician or certified nutritionist if you want to make drastic changes to your current diet. Most people can safely add in healthy fats by incorporated them into balanced meals (meaning meals that also include complex carbohydrates and lean protein). 

Excellent Sources of Healthy Fats for Runners Include:

  • Eggs (with the yolk!)
  • Seeds: chia seeds (great vegetarian source of omega-3s), flax seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Fish: salmon, tuna, trout
  • Nuts/nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts
  • Avocados
  • Tahini
  • Peanut butter
  • Full fat dairy

The Benefits of Healthy Fats for Runners: Best Sources of Healthy Fats

Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist or registered dietician. I am a certified running coach, which involves brief training on nutrition, but you must find a way of eating that is best of you and your overall health. Please consult an RD or nutritionist if you need specific help improving your diet.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner

What benefits have you noticed from adding more fat into your diet?
What’s your favorite source of healthy fat?

 

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29 Responses

  1. I also grew up with the mindset that fat was bad. I went from eating everything fat-free to then sugar free, which makes me cringe to think about now because of all the artificial sweeteners.
    I wish I liked avocado! I am just about the only person I know who doesn’t like it. I have tried to figure out ways to eat it but just cant do it. Luckily there are plenty of other ways to get healthy fats in my diet. I used to eat salmon every week but have gotten tired of it lately.

    1. I agree – those artificial sweeteners are disgusting to think about just as much as fat free foods. The variety of food is great in terms of healthy fats – so many options! I’ve found trout is a great alternative to salmon – different taste but same nutrition and preparation methods.

  2. The 90s fat free fad screwed us all up! It’s crazy how much it altered everyone’s perception of fat even today. When I upped my good fat intake, I too, felt my sugar cravings go away. My favorite form of healthy fats is in avocados. So good even by itself! And yes I’m super excited for Shalane’s cook book too. The preview recipes in Runner’s World this month are awesome!

  3. Adding healthy fats to my diet was one of the most revolutionary diet changes I have ever made for my running and my life. HEALTHY FATS ARE SO GOOD FOR YOU AND WILL HELP YOU RECOVER (shouting for others to hear, I know that you know :D)

  4. I’m like you and probably 30% of my diet is from healthy fats. I am eating sunflower seed and coconut butter as we speak! I really like eating it because as Shalane says above, it has helped my sugar cravings and made me feel a lot fuller.

    How is the cookbook so far?

    1. I’ve only seen the preview recipes in Runner’s World – the cookbook comes out next week and I’m so excited to order it! Sunflower seed and coconut butter sounds so good!

  5. So much yes to this. I remember back in the fat free days when I gently suggested to my mother she might want to add in some avocados and olive oil and nuts etc. she was horrified. It’s amazing to me how much this belief still pervades society!!!

  6. Oh my gosh I was definitely on the low-fat bandwagon growing up. Low fat/fat free yogurts, cheese, milk, packaged snacks, etc. I never knew how much sugar and other fake stuff they pump into those foods to make up for the loss of flavor! Now I’m all about eggs, avocados, almond butter, and REAL dairy. I’m much more satiated throughout the day!

  7. One of my goals for this month (and beyond) is to work on having less sugar. I don’t diet in the sense that I restrict myself from eating something if I really want it but I am learning to be more mindful of the food I put in my body. I should start eating more healthy fats because I’m pretty sure most fats I get are from unhealthy sources.

    1. Beating sugar cravings is an awesome goal! Foods like nut butters/peanut butter or nuts help a lot because they’re sort of sweet tasting – so you get the double benefit. Good for you for being mindful about what you eat – that’s an excellent habit to have!

  8. I’ve been looking forward to the release of her cookbook too! I was a teenager in the nineties so I know full well about the fat-free diet fads. They were pretty much high-sugar diet fads; that’s how it translated when they removed fat from things, they’d have to add sugar for taste. I consume a lot of saturated dairy fats. I drink whole milk, eat a lot of meat and cheese and use butter on everything because it tastes amazing.

    1. And when you think about it, adding sugar to things like low-fat cheese is just gross! Saturated fats are good – we need them for recovery/cellular health, and they just taste so darn good.

  9. I definitely feel fuller longer and don’t need to snack again 20 minutes later when I pair a snack with healthy fats, like an apple with peanut or sunflower butter, carrots or cucumbers with cheese or a hard boiled egg, etc. I also notice that now that I eat the whole egg I don’t always feel like I NEED meat in my omelets, cheese and veggies can be enough, because of the nutrients in the yolk.

    1. The yolks do make eggs so much more satisfying! I find it’s much easier to eat a meatless lunch with egg yolks because it has all of those good vitamins and minerals found in meat.

  10. Regardless of “what you are” – healthy fats are INSANELY important – INSANELY!!!! I crave healthy fats too!! I love drinking salmon fat. Is that weird? lol!

  11. Overall, I try and keep the processed foods to a minimum. In fact, I will sometimes even go a little hungry if it seems the only options are processed (mainly because I know the processed will not satisfy me and I will be left with an upset tummy). My favorite healthy fat would definitely be avocado…and nuts (but too many nuts also give me a stomach ache). Food is good…and I just like to eat. 🙂

  12. Interesting. I keep getting minor injuries and niggles. I wonder if I’m not getting enough fat. I’ll have to be more careful about it!

  13. I have always craved high-fat foods much more than sugary ones, so I guess I am lucky my body agrees with science? That said, I have to be careful to eat more healthy fats rather than something like…all the chips.

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