The Fat Fix


Fats Illustration. (Small)

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Fat gets a bad rap in the world today, its consumption associated with heart disease and obesity. But, fat has a beneficial role for humans, and for the growing swimmer, it can be a useful and strategic tool to manage weight. Whether the young athlete is trying to gain weight or lose a few pounds, fat is the single nutrient to manipulate, and here’s why:
  • Fat is a concentrated source of calories, offering 9 calories for every gram (versus 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrate). Whether you add it or subtract it from the diet, the impact will be on total calories.
  • Add it to the diet and help the underweight swimmer gain a few pounds.
  • Trim it out of the diet that contains too many calories (usually from too much fat or sugar) and help the swimmer slim down.
  • Target fat in the diet, protecting the more important nutrients for young athletes: carbohydrate and protein. Sports nutrition experts recommend adjustments in fat intake for the growing swimmer, rather than cutting out carbohydrates (fruit, veggies, whole grains or dairy foods) or protein foods.

Of course, if the young swimmer is underweight, this isn’t a license to consume a diet of mostly fat, or one that is extremely high in fat. Likewise, if overweight, going to an extreme diet of no fat isn’t helpful either. The delicate balance for growing athletes is about 30-35 percent of total calories from fat. That’s about 900 calories or 100 grams of fat (based on 3,000 calories per day) for the average, active 16 year-old male. 

Many of the foods kids and teens enjoy eating tend to be fried, creamed or layered with fatty foods like cheese. In today’s food landscape, eating a diet containing moderate amounts of fat can be a challenge because kids and teens frequently overdo the fat in their diets.

In fact, the highest fat food items eaten by kids and teens today, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are:


Grain-based foods: cake, pie, cookies, donuts, crisps, cobblers and granola bars

Dairy-based foods: regular fat cheese, ice cream, cream, dairy-based desserts, whole milk

Vegetables: French fries

Meats: sausage, franks, ribs, bacon, regular ground beef, marbled meats, poultry skin

Others: butter, chicken fat, pork fat; shortening, stick margarine.


Greasy cheeseburgers, French fries and ice cream, while rich in fat and calories, don’t encourage life-long healthy eating habits. Although many young swimmers may be able to eat these foods now and not see immediate or negative effects, eventually these eating habits have a way of hanging around through adulthood. The goal for the growing swimmer is to develop healthy eating habits for optimal athletic performance now, as well as for a lifetime of health. 

High-fat foods may also fail to offer the vitamins and minerals essential for growth and development, especially if you’re choosing the unhealthy ones like potato chips. Plant-based foods are chock-full of the vitamins and minerals the young athlete needs.

But what about the young swimmer who could use a few extra pounds on their frame? If the young swimmer needs to gain weight, adding fat in the form of healthy fat sources is best. These will add calories and contribute to the athlete’s overall health. And, it’s a quick (and delicious) way to get the job done.

Here are some sources of healthy fats (read: good for your heart and health) the young swimmer can add to his diet to boost calories:

  • Plant-based fats: Nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, olive oil, other plant oils (vegetable, canola, sunflower, etc), peanut butter and other nut butters, and ground flax seed and flax seed oil
  • Animal-based fats: fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)  

Make sure the type of fat in the swimmer’s diet is the healthy kind, whether needing to put on weight or trim down. Fat doesn't have to destroy your diet (or your weight) if you know how to balance it with other foods.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (www.fearlessfeeding.com). She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (www.justtherightbyte.com), a childhood nutrition blog. Jill lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Questions? Contact her at Jill@JillCastle.com.