Like carbohydrates in our previous article, fats are a critical part of a hunter’s diet. Fats are essential for immunity and anti-inflammatory processes, provide structure for cell membranes, act as an important energy source, and contribute to brain and heart health. Certain vitamins could not be absorbed, and hormones could not be produced, without the contribution of fats. Fat and carbohydrate work together to fuel the body: carbohydrate is preferred for the higher exercise intensities, and more fat is burned at lower to moderate intensities.
There are four main types of fats: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. These are traditionally broken down into "unhealthier" and "healthier" categories, but keep in mind that food can't always be labeled so simply and absolutely. It is beneficial to know which fats to boost and which to limit in the diet for long-term health and faster recovery from exercise or injury. Here is a snapshot into each type of fat:
Fats to Limit
Saturated: These are solid at room temperature and typically come from animal sources, such as butter, lard, full-fat dairy, fried foods, or fatty cuts of meat. When eaten in excess, saturated fats have been found to contribute to atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in artery walls that can restrict blood flow and result in injury to the heart. An excess of saturated fats is also connected to chronic inflammation and restricted blood flow to tissues. This directly impacts the ability to train and recover from strenuous exercise. The recommendation is to choose lean meats and low-fat dairy most of the time and to limit saturated fats to 10% of your calories.
Fats to Avoid
Trans fats: Trans fats boost unhealthy cholesterol levels in the body and most typically are found in processed foods. Some food sources include many kinds of margarine, some nut butters, many processed snack foods, and tortillas. Look for "partially hydrogenated oils" on food ingredient lists. Limit trans fats to less than 1% of your calories. This can easily be done by eating whole foods most of the time.
Fats to boost
Polyunsaturated fats: The polyunsaturated fats most Americans don't get enough of but has a wealth of health benefits are omega-3 fatty acids. They can be found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, herring, halibut, or albacore tuna. There are also plant-based sources: walnuts, chia seeds, ground flax, and flaxseed oil. Larger amounts of plant-based omega-3s need to be consumed to reach adequate levels.
Omega-3s counteract inflammation and promote brain health. Insufficient intakes of Omega 3s have been linked to heart disease, arthritis, dementia, and even mood disorders like depression. Shooting for 8 oz. fatty fish each week is the best way to ensure you are getting enough. Food almost always provides abundantly more benefits than supplements can. However, if you struggle to get in your Omega-3 foods each week, a supplement can do the trick. Look for one that is third-party certified (NSF, USP, etc.) to ensure it is clean and contains what is listed on the label. As for ingredients, look for one that contains 1-2 g EPA and DHA in a 2:1 ratio on the label or a plant-based supplement with 3-5 times more ALA Omega-3s. One Omega-3 supplement that I recommend is Nordic Naturals' Ultimate. Take omega-3 supplements with food.
Monounsaturated fats: These fats are healthy for the brain, heart, and immune system. You can find them in avocados, extra virgin olive oil, olives, nuts, and seeds. The main difference between mono and polyunsaturated fats is the molecular structure.
How much fat should I eat each day?
Fats are energy dense, providing 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and proteins only contribute 4 calories per gram. Fats should comprise about 30% of your diet to allow for greater satiety, immunity, and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
Fats and performance in the backcountry
Fats fuel low to moderate exercise intensities extremely well, while also contributing to the energy pool for higher intensities. They are energy dense, making them a valuable resource for the backcountry. A balanced diet rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3s promotes a healthy immune system, faster recovery, and easier blood flow—all benefits to health, better performance, and stamina for a multiple day trip. Many also contain nutrients helpful for brain function (think mood and decision making).
Since fats slow digestion (helpful for satiety), they also slow the body's ability to absorb and utilize carbohydrate. So, if you eat them directly before high-intensity work, you will not be able to go as hard due to an inability to access that carbohydrate. Further, your muscles will take priority for blood flow, so you may get an upset stomach. Avoid eating a lot of fat before high-intensity work (a very steep hill). Otherwise, they can be eaten throughout the day (periods of glassing, more even terrain, at camp, etc.) or in smaller amounts regularly. Every person has a different tolerance, so what you are able to handle without having digestive issues may vary.
Some nutritious fats to pack include nuts, seeds, olive oil (may add it to your meals to boost calories), sun-dried tomatoes, ground flax, salmon or tuna packets, and natural nut butters.
- Rachel Patrick, RDN, LD, CSCS