Ideal Body Fat for Athletes

In order for an athlete to maintain their ideal body fat and weight range we need to consider many factors.


Fat plays an important role in the body by providing an excellent energy source and supplying essential vitamins only found in fat. It is also an important site for sex hormone production and nervous cell development. Fats are referred to as triglycerides and they are made up of a glycerol molecule with three fatty acid molecules attached to it.


Fats are classified according to their saturation. This refers to the number of hydrogen atoms present in the fatty acid and determines their state at room temperature. Saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and have no double bonds. Monounsaturated fatty acids have one double bond and polyunsaturated fatty acids have more than one double bond. These are liquid at room temperature and are less stable. The length of the fatty acid chain determines how quickly it is absorbed, shorter chain length are absorbed quicker.



Maintaining Ideal Body Fat Levels



The majority of the population seem to believe that athletes would never struggle with ideal body fat levels or weight issues as they look fit and healthy. But like every body else, if athletes consume a diet too high in fat will not only be inadequate in carbohydrate, it will also prevent the maintenance of ideal body fat levels.


Excess body fat is caused by excess dietary fat. Extra body fat in athletes is “dead weight” to carry around. Athletes find that their power to weight ratio is improved with ideal body fat levels. Greater power to weight ratio allows for skilled movements in a confined space (e.g. divers and gymnasts).


Road cyclists, distance runners and triathletes also benefit from ideal body fat levels because any excess body fat will have to be carried over long distances. Sometimes it is the aesthetics of a sport that requires athletes to have low body fat levels (e.g. ballet). Higher body fat levels may be less of an issue for contact sports, skill-based sports, and some strength sports.


When determining an ideal body fat and weight range for athletes, it is important to consider the ranges in context. That is, body fat levels are specific to the sport, specific to the individual (e.g. genetics, age, gender, health, lack of injuries, past weight history, menstrual history), and related to performance history (i.e. knowing they run better at a certain body fat level).


Causes of Excess Body Fat


Many factors need to be considered when determining ideal body fat levels. These include:

  • Genetic factors play a 25 – 40% role in adiposity. Genes also contribute to choice of dietary intake
  • Environmental factors involves issues including energy intake and macronutrient selection. Look at the effect of exercise on appetite and the level of incidental activity (e.g. using the remote control for the television versus moving from the chair to adjust the television)
  • Total fat and energy intake
  • Energy cost of daily living. Inactive people use less energy than those more active (i.e. some athletes train, then come home and sleep or watch television, whilst others may remain more active and go to work or uni)
  • Social factors: athletes eating in a dining hall tend to overeat, due to the smorgasbord available
  • Psychological factors including non-hungry, boredom, and depression eating can all increase body weight and fat levels
  • Physiological factors including certain hormones, medications and disease conditions can influence body fat levelsĀ  

    In order for an athlete to decrease body fat, they need to take responsibility for their food intake. They may need to decrease intake of dietary fats (particularly saturated fats), decrease intake of alcohol, and reduce overall quantity of food ingested when in the off-season or suffering from a chronic injury.


    Helping Athletes to Lose Weight


    It is best to seek advice from a sports nutritionist when an athlete is required to lose weight and/or body fat. This is to ensure adequate intake of all nutrients during the weight loss period.


    An assessment of appropriate total levels of body fat loss would be made. Behaviour modification has been found to be essential if weight loss is to be maintained long term, and gradual loss of weight is desirable. Extreme measures of weight loss should be discouraged.


    Long term and short term goals can be used with the athlete. These goals shouldn’t be just weight based. Regular review visits are necessary to keep the athlete monitored and motivated.



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