Do young athletes risk their future health when they eat saturated fat?

Can adolescent athletes really eat as they please, free from anxiety about the health impact of dietary saturated fat, sugar, refined grains, prepackaged foods, and the other elements of the modern diet? Don’t the origins of cardiovascular disease begin at an early age and progress into adulthood? Here’s some typical research in this field:

Increased body mass index measured during childhood and young adult life and increased blood pressure and decreased HDL cholesterol levels measured during young adult life are associated with the presence of coronary artery calcification in young adults. (You can read the study here.)

In this study, overweight boys became overweight and hypertensive young men with heart disease. There were girls and women in the survey, but, well:

In young adult women, no childhood measurements showed a significant mean difference between those with and without coronary artery calcification.

These findings work against the hypothesis that diet-induced risk factors in childhood are tightly coupled with poor health outcomes in adult life. And we are probably a little lucky that we got to see this data at all. I mean, if the results of the analysis had not found a connection between overweight boys and young men with chronic illness, would the authors have bothered to publish it? There doesn’t seem to be much of a marketplace – literal or intellectual – for the studies that don’t find connections between childhood risk factors and adult chronic disease.

At least, not directly. Turns out there is lots of evidence that young athletes, without reference to what they ate as teenagers, are far less likely than non-athletes to develop chronic diseases as adults. These studies did not set out to suggest that adolescent athletes can eat aggressively to support athletic performance without fear of heightening their risk of adult chronic disease. But that this the implication.

Still, it is fairly standard for nutrition professionals to complain about teen athletes, outraged that teen athletes claim that they ‘can eat what they want’ because they train a lot. No! say these nutrition professionals. The athletes are wrong and are endangering their future health.

Yet it is hard to find good evidence to support the conclusions of these nutrition professionals, and fairly easy to find evidence that supports the free-eating ways of teen athletes.

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