I love trying out new recipes, especially those posted on running websites or by famous athletes, but lately I’ve been noticing a trend, an emphasis on butter. That’s right, butter. Often with these recipes, there is a corresponding statement of how healthy butter is for athletes. Is this true? There has definitely been a recent movement for athletes to switch to a high-fat diet. Are there any benefits to athletes starting their morning with “buttered coffee” or smothering their potatoes in butter at night?
Fat is certainly a necessary component of a healthy diet. Fat provides energy, is an essential element of cell membrane and helps with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Fats can be classified as a saturated fat or unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil and other vegetable oils. Unsaturated fats can be further classified into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The two essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) are unsaturated fats. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are usually solid at room temperature. Butter is an example of a saturated fat. Other sources of saturated fat include red meats, shortening, milk, cheeses, and yogurts. Some vegetable oils, such as coconut and palm kernel oil, are also high in saturated fats.
Fat should compromise approximately 20-35% of daily calories. Current research does not support athletes using a high fat/low carbohydrate diet as a way to improve performance. The main reason for this conclusion is that it makes it hard to undertake high-quality training or high-intensity efforts, and as a result, performance can suffer. On the other hand, consuming less than 20% of daily calories from fat is not recommended either because it becomes hard to get enough fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, especially omega-3. There needs to be a fine balance!
The type of fat we consume also matters since not all types are created equal. There are specific guidelines for the intake of saturated fat. It is recommended to limit saturated fat to no more than 10% of daily calories. Increasing saturated fat above this level is associated with an increased LDL (bad) cholesterol level, which contributes to atherosclerosis. Additionally, saturated fats provide no health benefits nor do athletes have increased requirements for saturated fats. What does 10% of daily calories from saturated fat look like? 2tbsp. of butter provides about 126 calories from saturated fat. That is 5% of daily calories from saturated fat for an athlete consuming 2500 calories per day, leaving another 126 calories from saturated fat. While this is certainly an acceptable amount of saturated fat to include in a diet, it leaves little room for healthy foods that are also a source of saturated fats. Remember, butter is not the only source of saturated fat. For instance, one cup of 2% milk provides approximately 28 calories from saturated fat, 50 grams of cheddar cheese approximately 15 calories from saturated fat and 1 cup of cooked lean ground beef approximately 70 calories from saturated fat. As you can see, the saturated fat can add up quickly throughout the day.
Bottom line, if used in moderation, butter can certainly be a part of a healthy diet. However, I would recommend, when possible, trying to use unsaturated fats over saturated fats, which have many proven health benefits. Olive oil, nut butters, seeds, non-hydrogenated margarines, avocados and fatty fish are all great sources of unsaturated fat! While it’s okay to spread a dab of butter on your potatoes, stick with milk rather than butter in your morning coffee.