The pros and cons of a high ‘healthy’ fat diet among cyclists…

Another nutritional topic which is a complete disaster to try to figure out on your own. Many research papers and results pointing in opposite directions, with some very confusing but well-founded theories on what is best practise. Here’s my take on it in a Q&A style format, based on questions I’ve been asked about this topic.

1/ What is a ‘healthy fat’?

Polyunsaturated fats – nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and fatty fish. Essential to healthy living.

Unsaturated fats – as above. Essential to healthy living.

Monounsaturated fats – as above, avocado is an addition. Essential to healthy living.

Saturated fats – meat, fish and dairy – these can be eliminated or replaced with polyunsaturated fats. They may raise harmful cholesterol and as of August 2017 I am unaware of any scientific research to suggest of any health benefits.

2/ What is a ‘bad fat’?

Just to clear this up, despite not being the topic, the only fat you should not eat is trans fats, mainly found in processed or fried food. Food manufacturers can say a product is trans-fat free if it contains less than half a gram per serving. These can add up. Check a product’s ingredient list. If you see the words hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or shortening, it contains trans-fat; you’re better off leaving it on the shelf.

3/ Can I fuel my rides solely on fat?

Yes, but you might not want too. High intensity exercise will use more, readily stored glycogen in your body, this is primarily refilled by eating carbohydrate, however if you deplete these stores your body might convert fat into glycose before turning that into glycogen, this isn’t necessarily a fast process, hence why you bonk when you empty your tank.

If you train longer lower intensity rides and short high intensity ones, then theoretically you could just eat fat as fuel and your body will refill your stores. In short you can fuel your rides solely on fat, but you probably shouldn’t and it is not something we practise or recommend in Nutritionally Fit.

4/ Carbohydrates versus fats for fuel?

Both have an important role. Carbs are readily available and will be used at high intensity like anaerobic cycling or gym work, whereas fats are preferred for lower intensity and around 80% of normal daily activity.

Carbs have a highly limited store, depending on how full your muscles and liver are, how much power you produce and what you have recently eaten, you might last 1-2 hours on the stores of glycogen in your body, or around 1,500 calories is a good estimate. Fats on the other hand are almost unlimited, even world tour riders might have over 50,000 calories of energy in their bodies, although reducing that too much can be fatal, unlike carbs where you bonk long before anything bad happens.

With this information and a little experimentation, you can actually work out what ratio you could be eating. For example, doing a lot of base miles with limited upper aerobic or anaerobic exercise could benefit from a higher fat diet. Whereas those who are doing a lot of shorter sharper work might want more carbs.

5/ What is best for me?

Like my coaching and what Nutritionally Fit teaches you, you are unique. Don’t expect the same results from what your friend or a blog tells you. You should experiment with different practises and see which works best. Off-season is perfect for this where a day lost to a mistake isn’t going to affect you too badly.

Eat fresh foods, limit saturated fats or replace them with polyunsaturated ones, remove trans fats completely and enjoy being a healthier person.