The Importance of Fat and How It Can Improve Your Health & Performance

Fat is one of the most beneficial substances in your diet, and it is often the missing link in developing and maintaining good health and ultimately optimum performance. But a misunderstanding of the role of fat and a well financed misinformation campaign has misled the public and led to an epidemic of fat phobia.  Just think of the amount of money spent each year on low fat and no fat food and you’ll understand why you might not have been told the whole truth about fat.

Fat sources like vegetable oil, butter, fats in eggs, meat and cheeses and other naturally occurring fat can be harmful if over eaten. In fact, too much or too little is dangerous and hence the importance of understanding the role of fat and ultimately your personal needs for optimal health and performance.

Consuming a balanced amount of healthy fat helps maintain health, prevent disease and facilitate optimal performance. Eating too much of one type of fat, saturated fat, or too much omega 6 from vegetable oil can disturb the delicate balance of fat in the body. Eating processed fats, such as hydrogenated oil, and overheated fat, such as a fried food, causes dysfunction and disease. This means many mainstream foods and snacks are out: chips, french fries, and fried chicken.

Energy from Fat

The aerobic system depends on fats as the primary fuel for the aerobic muscles, which power us through the day. Fat produces energy and prevents excessive dependency upon sugar, especially blood sugar.  Fats provide more than twice as much potential energy as carbohydrates do because fat contains 9 calories per gram in comparison to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate/sugar. Your body is capable of obtaining most of its energy from fat, up to 80 to 90%, if you’re fat burning mechanism is working efficiently. The body even uses fat as a source of energy for heart muscle function. These fats, called phospholipids, normally are contained in the heart muscle and generate energy to make it work more efficiently.

What happens if you have not trained your body to use fat as your primary fuel source? Then you must use more sugar for energy. Low blood sugar symptoms include: mood swings, mental or physical fatigue, clumsiness, headaches, depression, allergies and other physical and mental challenges, depending on your susceptibility to an excess or deprivation of sugar in the blood.  How can you avoid these sugar highs and sugar lows? By making sure you train your body to burn fat for energy. If your body is burning fat for energy while you exercise, your brain and nervous system will have enough sugar, which they require for energy. If the rest of your body takes too much of the brain’s energy supply of sugar (from your liver & muscles), the brain will not function at peak performance and neither will the rest of your body.

A second reaction to the body not having enough balanced fat for energy is that it will store fat. The body likes fat, think of all the foods with a high-fat content that you like to eat. Actually, the body likes fat so much; carbohydrates and proteins can be converted and stored as fat. In fact, the body stores fat in case fat is needed in the future- that could be tomorrow, next week or next month. Let’s take a look at some of the various body functions that require fat.

The Hormonal System

The hormonal system is responsible for controlling virtually all healthy functions of the body. For the hormonal system to function properly, the body must produce proper amounts of the appropriate hormones. Many glands, such as the adrenal glands, are dependent on fat for production of hormones according to Dr. Maffetone, well renowned author and coach to Mark Allen, six-time Ironman World Champion.

In addition to the adrenal glands, the thymus, thyroid, kidneys and other glands use fats to help make hormones. The adrenals also require a specific fat, cholesterol for the production of hormones such as progesterone and cortisone. The thymus gland regulates immunity and the body’s defense systems. The thyroid regulates body temperature, weight and other metabolic functions, the kidneys hormones help regulate blood pressure, circulation and filtering of blood.

Many people are rightly concerned about their percentage of body fat. But hormonal problems, and the related health problems that stem from them, can be seen in those who have fat imbalances or whose body fat is too low. For example, some women who exercise too much experience disruptions in their menstrual cycle, usually indicating a fat metabolism disorder. Many women also except the popular misconception of menopause is always accompanied by significant symptoms. In reality, women with properly functioning hormonal systems have only minor symptoms. Many women on a low-fat diet, or who have a history of following a low-fat diet and have not corrected fatty acid imbalances or deficiencies, experienced significant menopausal complaint bees often are related fatty acid deficiency. Without the right balance of fats in the system, the hormonal system can produce certain hormones.

Eicosanoid Balance

Hormone like substances, called eicosanoid, are necessary for normal cellular functions such as: regulating inflammation, hydration, circulation and free radical activity. Produced from dietary fat, eicosanoid are especially important for the role in controlling inflammation – the precursor to many chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s according to Dr. Maffetone.  Many people have inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, tendinitis and anything ending with “-itis” probably have an eicosanoid imbalance. But in many people, chronic inflammation goes on unidentified.

The balance of eicosanoid is also important for regulating blood pressure and hydration. An imbalance can produce high or low blood pressure or trigger constipation or diarrhea. Eicosanoid imbalance may also be associated with menstrual cramps, blood clotting, tumor growth and other problems.

Insulation

The body’s ability to store fat permits humans to live in most climates, even those of extreme heat or cold. In areas of warmer conditions, stored body fat provides protection from the heat. In cooler areas, increased fat storages below the skin prevents too much heat from leaving the body.

In warmer climates, fat prevents too much water from leaving the body, which can result in dehydration that causes dry, scaly skin.

Digestion

Because so many people digest food poorly – a common result of stress, they do not always absorb the nutrients in foods. Your diet may be the best in the world but it’s all for nothing if you can’t properly digest and absorb the nutrients they contain. Bile from the gallbladder triggered by fat in the diet, helps aide in the digestion and absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins.

Most of the fats and the diet are digested in the small intestine – this process involves breaking the fat into smaller particles. The pancreas, liver, gallbladder and large intestine are also involved in the digestive process. Any of these organs not working properly could have a negative effect on fat metabolism in general, but the two most important organs are the liver, which makes bile, and the pancreas, which makes the enzyme lipase. If there is not enough fat in the diet, not enough bile will be secreted according to Dr. Maffetone.

The secretion of bile into the small intestine makes your dietary fat digestible. Certain lipase containing foods such as avocados & extra virgin olive oil can greatly aid digestion of fat.  Fat also helps regulate the rate of stomach emptying. Fats in a meal slow stomach emptying, allowing for better digestion of protein. If you’re always hungry, it may be because your meals are too low in fat and your stomach is emptying too fast. Fats also slow the absorption of sugar from the small intestine, which keeps insulin from rising too high or too quickly. Additionally, fats protect the inner lining of the stomach and intestines from irritating substances in the diet, such as alcohol and spicy food.

Supporting Function

Fat offers physical support and protection of vital body parts, including the organs and glands. Fats acts as a natural, built in shock absorber, cushioning the body and various parts from the wear and tear of everyday life and helps prevent organs sinking due to the downward pull of gravity.

Vitamin and Mineral Regulation

Most people know that vitamin D is produced by exposure of the skin to the sun. However, it is actually cholesterol in the skin that allows this reaction to occur. Sunlight chemically changes cholesterol in the skin that allows this reaction to occur.  Sunlight chemically changes cholesterol in the skin through the process of irradiation to vitamin D-3.

This newly formed vitamin D is then absorbed into the blood, allowing calcium and phosphorus to be properly absorbed from the intestinal tract. Without the vitamin D, calcium and phosphorus would not be well absorbed and deficiencies of both would occur. But without cholesterol the entire process would not occur as outlined by Dr. Maffetone.

There’s another important connection between calcium & fat. Calcium needs to be carried from the blood and taken into the bones and muscle cells. For this to happen, certain prostaglandins, made from fat, are needed. If there is not enough fat to make adequate prostaglandins, too little calcium enters the bone. When this happens, the results can be stress fractures, osteoporosis and collapsed vertebrae. Without enough calcium in muscles, tightness, spasms or cramping can occur since calcium is needed to relax muscles. Unused calcium may be stored, sometimes in the kidney’s as stones or in the muscles, tendons or joint space as calcium deposits, often called bone spurs.

Besides vitamin D, other vitamins including A, E and K rely on fat for proper absorption and utilization. These important vitamins are present primarily in fatty foods, and the body cannot make an adequate amount of these vitamins to ensure continued good health. Additionally, these vitamins require fat in the intestines in order to be absorbed.  With this in mind, a low fat diet could be deficient in these vitamins to begin with and also could further restriction their absorption.

Taste

Face it, people love food with fat in them but are too guilt ridden to enjoy the food they are eating.  Fat does not have to be an unhealthy addition to your diet if properly balanced. Fat not only tastes good, it makes you feel good both physiologically and psychologically as well.

Fat (along with protein) satisfies your physical hunger. People on low fat diets often claim that they are always hungry. Of course they are, without fat in their diet they can’t achieve the feeling of satiety.  And as a result, the brain just keeps sending the same message over and over “Eat More”. Because you never really feel satisfied, the temptation to over eat is irresistible. In fact, there’s a good chance you can actually gain weight on a low-fat diet by overeating trying get that “I’m not hungry anymore feeling”.

Dealing With Heat & Humidity – How to Stay Cool and Hydrated During Training and Racing

As we exercise, our bodies burn the calories that that we consume (i.e. carbohydrates, proteins and fats).  It is the breakdown of these calories and muscle movement that causes heat to build up and raise our core body temperature initiating the demands of the body to maintain its ideal body temperature of 98.6 degrees.  There are several ways that the body dissipates heat (skin and exhalation for example); however, the most complex system involves your ability to sweat.

Simply put, water molecules evaporate from your skin removing heart energy, leaving water molecules on your skin making you feel cooler.  The endothermic process of converting liquid to a gas is beyond the scope of this article; however, the ultimate goal is to maintain your body’s ability to efficiently dissipate heat throughout exercise.  What makes it difficult is dealing with elements that we don’t have any control over – heat and humidity.

On hot days when there is little difference between the skin’s surface temperature and the ambient air temperatures, the skin provides only small cooling benefits – increasing the importance of sweating to maintain your internal core temperature. In fact, above 95 degrees Fahrenheit you lose no heat at all from your skin – evaporation must do all of the work.  Humidity decreases your body’s ability to evaporate sweat because the air is already saturated with water vapor, slowing the evaporation rate.  Though you and your clothes may be saturated, it is not helping you in your cooling process – sweat must evaporate to remove heat from your body – plain and simple.  It is this concept that makes hydration so important; if you don’t have enough fluids to produce sweat you will over heat guaranteed (along with the adverse side effects – performance and health wise).

On average, endurance athletes lose approximately 30-35 ounces of fluid per hour of exercise (the actual amount varies by body size, intensity levels and heat/humidity levels).  There are numerous formulas floating around in the sports nutritional world regarding ideal food and fluid intake; however, keep in mind that there are three things that we need to evaluate regarding ideal performance nutrition: water intake, electrolytes and calories.  It has been our experience working with hundreds of athletes that the best way to formulate an ideal nutritional strategy is through trial and error.  This formula requires good documentation on behalf of the athlete to track what is consumed, your workout duration and intensity levels along with average paces and heart rate levels.

Here are a few tips for training and racing in the heat and humidity

  • Avoid over-hydrating on plain water
  • Train at times that are relevant to your race (i.e. if you are going to start your run at 2:00 pm during a race, then practice running at this time dealing with the heat, humidity and sun burn)
  • Wear only clothes that facilitate the evaporation process (avoid cotton at all costs)
  • Cold fluids absorb faster than warm fluids; use insulated bottles
  • Backing off of the intensity every so often and pouring cold water over your wrists and neck will help relieve your body of internal heat
  • Pay attention to body signs that things are not going well: dry chills, becoming lightheaded or queasy are all indications to stop. Be smart!

Top 5 Vitamins to Aid Muscle Recovery

Maintaining an exercise regimen is tough. You make time, set attainable goals, and create a schedule of fitness-boosting routines. However, once muscle soreness sets in, it can be hard to maintain the routine, let alone move in the morning.

The pain can become unbearable, but sore muscles can be soothed without a pill. Before rifling through the medicine cabinet, try these five naturally-occurring vitamins to help speed recovery. Include them in your post-workout meal for optimal—and tasty—results.

Vitamin C

This powerful antioxidant boosts the production of collagen—connective tissue that helps repair skin tissue, tendons and blood vessels. Vitamin C also helps flush the muscles of lactic acid.

Sources: Citrus fruits, green peppers, red peppers, raspberries, broccoli, sweet potatoes, blueberries, cabbage, cantaloupe, pineapples.

Vitamin D

In addition to aiding in the absorption of calcium to build strong muscles and bones, vitamin D helps reduce inflammation and regulate the immune system.
Sources: Fatty fish, liver oils, fortified milk products, fortified cereals, meats, eggs, sunlight.

Vitamin E

During strenuous exercise, a protein, creatine phosphokinase—also known as CPK—seeps into the bloodstream. Vitamin E increases blood circulation and helps rid the body of CPK more efficiently. It also protects cells from damage-causing free radicals.

Sources: Sunflower seeds, almonds, fortified cereals, wheat germ, olives, avocados

Vitamin B

The B complex is comprised of eight vitamins, that help the body perform a variety of functions. They ease the breakdown of proteins and carbs, boost muscle repair, and assist with cell development. A lack of B vitamins can increase muscle cramps and aches.

Sources: Legumes, swiss chard, kale, dates, pomegranates, squashes, salmon, dairy, whole grains

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is known for its vision-boosting powers, but from a recovery standpoint, it helps the immune system and major organs function properly.

Sources: Organ meats (high in cholesterol so limit consumption), salmon, dairy, pumpkin, cantaloupe, carrots, apricots

How Rest Improves Performance

Exercise is a great habit to have within your daily life; however, when it becomes an obsession it can actually become counter-productive to your overall health.  Excessive training (in the form of volume and/or intensity) without adequate rest causes the body to become “numb” to external indicators of over training such as mood swings, simple sugar cravings, interrupted sleep, loss of sex drive, loss of body weight, suppressed appetite and an elevated resting heart rate.

Research indicates that after 12 weeks of consistent training, Cytochome C (a mitochondrial enzyme involved in the production of energy at a cellular level), reaches a peak and then beings to decline. In addition to Cytochrome C levels, so does your maximum oxygen uptake (also known as your VO2 Max.).  At this point, the body must be allowed to rest and re-group for continued progress.

Training creates adaptations within the body’s various systems (muscular, cardio-pulmonary, lymphatic, nervous and connective) and needs to be supported with rest and food for positive adaptations.  Inadequate amounts (and quality) of sleep and food set the body up for a physical break down which leads to negative effects on the body (i.e. suppressed immune system and muscles with less power and endurance).

In addition to adaptations within the body’s systems, training causes changes at a cellular level – cell mitochondria swell, metabolic wastes accumulate, essential nutrients (particularly electrolytes and stored glycogen) deplete, and muscle tissue is torn.  This tearing is known as microtrauma of the cells, and torn muscle tissue doesn’t work efficiently.  As popularly noted, it takes 48 hours for the body to recover from this micro-trauma and has to be supported with rest and food for proper recovery and improved overall health.

If the body doesn’t get the opportunity to rebuild from the “work phase” of training, overall health and associated performance begin to slow down (and in extreme circumstances, cease all together).

The concept of hard training days followed with easy-active recovery days incorporated into your weekly training schedule establishes the balance necessary for maximum improvements in your overall health and ultimately your performance.  Consistent training without physical or mental setbacks provides the foundation for your body absorb your training volumes.  The larger the foundation (i.e. quality of overall health) the quicker you will recover from workouts and the quicker your body will progress to new levels of performance.

The key to overcoming your fear of taking time off is to understand how much it will help, rather than hinder, your performance.  Think about it this way, if you are not fresh, you will not have the energy (or desire) to push to the next level of performance.  If your body doesn’t experience the next level, you will begin to stagnate within your performance cycles. So, the next time you see a recovery workout on your schedule, don’t ignore it! Remember, that rest allows your body to recover, rebuild, and ultimately become stronger.