When it comes to Volleyball Performance Not all Fats are Created Equal

Macadamia nuts provide a healthy dose of unsaturated fat

Does Consuming Fat Make you Fat?

It is common knowledge that saturated fats from animal protein sources, for example meat and creamy dairy, and trans fats found in hydrogenated oils, can be bad for the heart. In fact, overconsumption of these fats can lead to increased chances of heart disease. As athletes we want to maintain a trim physique and there is also a clear correlation between saturated fat consumption and obesity. To answer the above question, whether you gain body fat often depends on the kind of fat you consume.

In a recent study it was found that European countries such as France and Italy showed lower rates of obesity. Coincidentally or not, consumption of monounsaturated fats was also high in these nations. On the contrary, in Canada and the United States the results were not as promising. More than 20 percent of Canadian women over the age of 15 were obese with the American female obesity rate registering at 37.8 percent.

While there are other lifestyle factors that affect obesity rates, however, it is worth noting that there was substantially more saturated fat being consumed by these women compared to those in the European countries studied. In fact, the American women averaged 152.2 grams of fat daily, with only 45.9 grams being monounsaturated.

What does all of this mean? North Americans tend to rely on saturated fat sources in their diet and as a result struggle to maintain a healthy weight. The take home message is not all fats promote weight gain if consumed properly.

The Big Picture
As athletes, we cannot be afraid of fats. After all, it is an essential nutrient, meaning that a certain amount of fat must be included in your diet. Furthermore, fats are the highest energy food source you can consume containing nine calories per gram.

What Types of Fats are Best for Athletes?
For athletes, performance is everything and nutritionally this often comes down to speed of digestion. Short, intense bursts of activity such as those of a sprinter predominately require creatine phosphate and readily available glucose.

Monosaturated and Polysaturated Fat
For volleyball players, an average match can last more than 90 minutes. This requires the use of stored glucose (found in muscle tissue and liver glycogen) and the oxidation of fat. Stored fat oxidation is not an extremely efficient process. As a result, you can take your game to the next level by having a steady supply of newly digested fatty acid chains anxiously waiting to be used for energy. Before digestion, these fats should be unsaturated for the following reasons.

BENEFIT #1: Easily Digested
An unsaturated fatty acid tail is more easily digested enzymatically which allows stored energy to be consumed by an athlete midway through a game. Unsaturated fat molecules contain one or more double bonds creating a “kink” in the fatty acid chain making it harder for adjacent molecules to pack tightly together. On the contrary, more tightly packed saturated fat slows digestion to a halt, not only making you feel sick during training but also making it difficult to utilize the stored energy.

BENEFIT #2: Speed Of Digestion
I am not contradicting myself here. A benefit of monounsatured fats is that they slow digestion by delaying how fast the stomach empties. For activities that can last 1-2 hours, such as volleyball (especially in a 5 set match) we want energy reserves reaching our blood stream 60 minutes into competition. Once our blood glucose is reduced and glycogen stores are lowered, it is beneficial to have slower digesting monounsaturated fat ready to take over ATP production.

Pure glucose (in various sport drinks) reaches the blood extremely quickly where saturated fats take too long and are not digested well. Monounsaturated fat is the happy medium when it comes to digestion time and endurance activities. It digests slow enough to be used after blood glucose becomes depleted but fast enough to be available during your match.

BENEFIT#3: Energy Dense
Last but certainly not least, unsaturated fats are very energy dense. If consumed properly they are without a doubt ideal pre-game food choices.

Tips for Proper Game Day Fat Consumption


  • Include a greater portion of unsaturated fats in your early meals of the day. Consuming a large portion immediately before getting on the court will take too long to digest and is not ideal.

  • Aim to consume a variety of sources of fat to take advantage of the other nutrients they contain. For instance almonds have been known to be high in calcium.

  • If consumed immediately before activity, consume your fats with a liquid drink that also contains glucose. Remember, your body prefers to use sugar first. You still need energy in set #1 of your match!

  • Do not lose sight of the big picture, carbohydrates are still important. Moderation is imperative when it comes to fat consumption and carbohydrates should still account for approximately 50% of your daily caloric intake.


Common Sources of Unsaturated Fat


  • High fat fruits (avocado, olives)

  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachio nuts, pumpkin seeds, almond butter)

  • Plant based oils (olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil)

Sources:
Moussavi et al, Obesity (2008) 16, 7-15. Could the Quality of Dietary Fat, and Not Just Its Quality Be Related to Risk of Obesity?

Originally published in November 2011

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