Nutrition for MMA Fighters: The Basics Part 3 - Fats

In our most recent blogs, we discussed carbohydrates and protein, and how they relate to MMA fighters. We will now cover the last Macronutrient, Fat. We will go through the different types of fats, body fat, how we burn fat during the day compared to exercise and why knowing this is important for fighters.  

Fats in Food

First and foremost, let’s cover what fats are. They are these long molecules that our body uses for a range of functions such as; storing and transporting vitamins, cushioning our organs, building hormones, giving our cells structure, and storing reserve energy. In short, fat is extremely important in our body.

Nutrition For MMA Fighters The Basics Part 3 Fats Molecular Structure

Fat Molecular Structure

In terms of Nutrition, fat is what I would call an energy bomb. This is because per gram, it gives us two and a half times more energy than the same amount of carbs or protein. In other words, you get the same amount of energy from eating 40g of fat as you do with 100g of carbs or protein. 

Nutrition For MMA Fighters The Basics Part 3 Fats - 40 grams fat equals 100 grams carbs in energy

You will often hear people dividing fat in to good or bad, but to be honest I am not the biggest fan of this method. Instead, I choose to focus on processed and unprocessed fats. Processed fat foods are things like your; takeaway foods such as cheeseburgers, candy or lollies, deep fried foods, donuts, french fries, or potato chips. Unprocessed fats include things like; avocados, salmon, other oily fish, nuts, and eggs. From looking at these two lists you can probably guess what foods my fighters are getting their fats from.

Body Fat

If you have ever gone to get a body scan you would have received a sheet with a whole lot of numbers (we will go through these in later posts), one of them being a body fat percentage. You have two types of fat that you store, essential fat and storage fat.

Essential fat is the fat required to adequately complete the bodily functions mentioned above. Women have a higher requirement for essential fat than men due to the differences in physiology related to child bearing. Although it is very individual, it is generally accepted that males need at minimum 3-10% and women 12-18% body fat to survive. If you go below this, then some of the consequences are; disruption in hormones, low iron levels, decreased energy levels, decreased bone strength, decreased sex drive, and decreased mood.

Storage fat is all the fat that is in excess to our essential fat. I will say this now to alleviate any suspense; I cannot give you the ideal body fat required for your best performance. For fighters, it seems to be in the range of 8-14% for males and 12-24% for females, but it depends on the individuals body type, metabolic profile and fighting style. Daniel Cormier is a good example of this. I highly encourage you seek out a qualified practitioner to help determine what your ideal performance body fat percentage is. 

Nutrition For MMA Fighters The Basics Part 3 Fats - Men versus Women Body Fat Percentage

Men versus Women Body Fat Percentage

Burning Fat as Energy

To understand how we use fat as energy we need to quickly go over two concepts. The first being how our body uses fat when we aren’t doing anything, and secondly how we use it when we exercise.

At Rest

Without getting into a complex discussion of cell biology and metabolism, we will summarise the first point as this. The major fuel source for our heart and muscles when we are resting is fat. As muscles take up a lot of our body mass, and our heart is well, our heart and always working, a good amount of fat is used to keep these going.

Our body fat is not just something that sits there, it is metabolically active, and has a major role in regulating numerous hormones and metabolic processes, so it needs fuel to do this. Without getting in to it too much, fat breaks down itself to fuel all of these processes. This is one of the reasons why when you strategically put yourself in a slight calorie deficit(weight loss diets) you can lose body fat.

Your reserved fat is used to make up the difference in energy you are not consuming. Please note this becomes very problematic when you start using essential fat to make up the deficit. This is why if you are already really lean you should not attempt to cut large amounts of weight. You will compromise all of the above mentioned functions of fat.

During Exercise

When your body exercises, you use all available fuel sources but in different proportions, the graph below describes this. At low intensities we predominately use fat, and at higher intensities we use carbs.

Nutrition For MMA Fighters The Basics Part 3 Fats Percent Energy From Fat and Carbohydrates

 So, when you are doing an easy jog, light skipping, slow shadow boxing, or drilling technique you are using mostly fat. When you start moving into live drills, or sparring, and the intensity picks up you move to burning more carbs.

Bringing this Full Circle

Okay, what’s all this mean for a Mixed Martial Artists?

1. If you are cutting weight, you need to be aware of the amount of body fat you have to determine how much weight you can safely lose during camp. Remember, there is a certain level of body fat that is favourable for you, if you go lower your compromising both your health and performance.

2. We lose weight by being in a calorie deficit, reducing the unnecessary fat in your diet can remove a significant number of calories and help achieve this.

3. Many fight week strategies involve reducing carbohydrate to lose glycogen and water. As the goal of fight week is not to lose body fat, but to artificially reduce your weight, we can use high quality fats in your meal plans to ensure energy demands are met.

4. Fat is used to fuel our body while we are at rest. Since no one trains 24/7, it is important to maintain appropriate amounts of fat in the diet to support proper metabolic function.

Now that we have covered all of the Macronutrients, we can talk about our diet more globally, and discuss everything you need to know about calories.

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