USA Swimming gives some bad nutritional advice on dietary fat

USA Swimming offers lots of odd, out-dated, and ill-informed nutritional advice to young swimmers. This series of posts are offered as a corrective.

Today we consider “Clearing the Confusion on Fat” written by Chris Rosenbloom Ph.D., RDN, CSSD. Let’s jump right in.

First, the author makes a big factual error. The author claims:

Saturated fats, like coconut oil, butter, and palm oil, raise risk of CVD.

Eh, no. (By the way, the author defines CVD (cardiovascular disease) as “heart disease, blood vessel disease like high blood pressure, peripheral vascular diseases, and stroke”.)

First, saturated fat does NOT raise the risk of stroke. Even researchers who are wary of dietary saturated fat note there is no link to stroke. Here’s a typical quote:

…the available evidence suggests that SAFA [saturated fatty acid] reduction has little, if any, direct effect on stroke risk, but that the consumption of SAFA-rich dairy foods may be associated with a lower risk of ischemic stroke. 

You catch that last part? Dietary saturated fat may reduce the risk of stroke. Surprise!

Yes, many public health officials express concern about a link between dietary saturated fat and increased risk of heart disease. There are some researchers who claim there is cause for reducing saturated fat consumption. But read carefully the reports they cite. Note the population being discussed (generally middle-aged non-athletes) and the magnitude of the effect (slight).

For instance, a 2015 Cochrane meta-analysis did find a small benefit associated with swapping out some saturated fat and replacing it with polyunsaturated fats, but the benefit was limited to those with bad cholesterol profiles. It was only the sicker, older study participants that received the slightest benefit, and only on one indicator – the frequency of heart disease. By the way, reducing saturated fat intake did not reduce the rate of DEATH from heart disease. That’s confusing. But typical of a larger pattern in dietary studies where ‘small effect’ and ‘no effect’ can seem indistinguishable.

Others look at the same studies and see no benefit to reducing saturated fat intake. Their research suggests that dietary saturated fat is harmless.

Finally, for teenage female athletes, there’s reason to believe that a higher level of saturated fat intake is beneficial.

Perhaps the author of this USA Swimming article (Rosenbloom) has excellent reason to disagree with this body of research. If so, the author needs to say that. Or avoid the subject entirely.

Second, the author needs to remember the audience.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 11.47.07 AMThis is nutritional advice for the athletes of USA Swimming. In 2016, there were 336,036 year-round swimmers in USA Swimming. More than 96% of these swimmers were 18 or younger (and 56% are female).

There is currently no evidence that endurance-trained athletes under the age of 18 suffer from cardiovascular disease brought on by consumption of dietary fats.

Young athletes do (rarely but tragically) suffer from, and die of, cardiovascular diseases. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common of the (still very uncommon) genetic heart abnormalities that afflict young athletes. Here’s the thing though. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a genetic condition. It is not caused by eating coconut oil.

You want to clear the confusion on fat for young swimmers? Start by telling them:

  • Don’t worry about it.
  • Right now, researchers disagree about the health value of various fats – saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated.
  • Most things you’ll hear about dietary fats and health are wrong, so ignore it.
  • There is no evidence that any dietary fats pose a health risk to fit young athletes.
  • You may want to review current nutritional guidelines when you are in your 20s.

Parsing the different types of fats based on saturation, as the author does, and saying that some fats need to be avoided might (or might not) be useful for sedentary middle-aged office workers.

For the audience of young swimmers, this message on dietary fat is a needless distraction at best. And it potentially causes confusion, and fear, about food in general.

For most teen and preteen athletes, their primary nutritional challenge is to simply eat more food. They have limited time (and appetite) to consume the food needed to grow to their full potential and compete in the arena of their choosing. Their parents are unlikely to have the time to do independent nutritional research. These families need good, simple advice. You run the risk of doing real harm to these athletes when you tell them (and their parents) that consuming dietary fat is potentially dangerous and must be done with great caution. You especially put at risk your largest and most vulnerable audience – those young female athletes who should be eating more fat.

More on that when we discuss the (serious and dangerous) female athlete triad.

The standard disclaimer: I am a parent of a serious teen swimmer. I am not a physician. I do not hold any certification in the field of nutrition. I am not a registered dietician. I read research publications and nutrition reports, but I do not do any independent research. Basically, I am lay-person, motivated by my concern for the well-being of my kid. For me to be able to tell that nutritional advice is bad, it has to be really bad.


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