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 condemned by USA Swimming’s consulting dieticians? Don’t the origins of cardiovascular disease begin at an early age and progress into adulthood, and isn’t dietary saturated fat intake associated with the development of cardiovascular disease? 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 bad cholesterol. 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.’
Let’s just acknowledge that this finding works against the hypothesis that diet-induced risk factors in childhood are tightly coupled with poor health outcomes in adult life. And move on. Grateful that we got to see this data. Because if the results of the analysis had not found that one connection between overweight boys and young men with chronic illness, then this study would have disappeared into the file drawer. We would not have learned that they ran the numbers and found no connection at all between childhood risk factors and adult chronic disease among women.
I scoured PubMed. I can find no studies that link the eating habits of healthy teenage athletes – even those who eat like Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps – to any chronic disease during adulthood.
Here’s what I do find:
- Nutrition professionals complaining about young athletes who say they ‘can eat what they want’ because they train a lot. These nutrition professionals claim that these athletes are wrong and are endangering their future health.
- Contradictory evidence (not just inconclusive evidence – high-quality evidence saying there is a link and high-quality evidence saying no, there is not) about the link between childhood risk factors and adult chronic disease.
- 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.
The conclusion that nutrition professionals – including those employed by USA Swimming – draw from their evidence is that adolescent athletes must follow stringent restrictions on what they eat, avoid fat, eat a lot of fibrous foods, and generally listen to nutrition professionals. But you’ve got the same evidence I do, so draw your own conclusions.