Wildly inconsistent nutritional information from USA Swimming

These posts are offered as correctives to the odd, out-dated, and ill-informed advice USA Swimming gives to adolescent swimmers. 

“Tips for Consistent Nutrition” – By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD (Tuesday, March 21, 2017)

The author starts strong. Competitive swimmers need to focus on ‘eating to fuel training and competition every day.’ Absolutely. But then this:

“Your training will not be helped if you are under- or over-fueled.”

We know what ‘under-fueled’ means. But what is ‘over-fueled’? I mean, is the author giving hilariously obvious advice like ‘don’t walk up to the blocks with a stomach full of fettuccine alfredo?’ 

…too much food can divert blood from working muscles to the gut for digestion.

I guess so. Then we are told to eat frequent meals, which is good. Then:

A carton of low-fat chocolate milk after practice can provide key amino acids for muscle repair, carbohydrates for muscle glycogen synthesis, and fluids.

“Low-fat?” Why low-fat? Higher fat milk has more energy to help the athlete perform. There is no reason for teenage athletes to avoid fat.

Healthy food doesn’t have to mean yucky! Even at your favorite quick service restaurants, healthy options abound.

Yucky? Assuming ‘quick serve’ means fast food, let’s just say that fast-food restaurants are fine because they offer high calorie foods and teenage athletes need to ingest lots of calories (I don’t think that’s what the author meant though). Athletes need to know that quantity comes first, and if only fast food is available then just eat it.

And stop it with the ‘healthy food.’ People are healthy (or not), but calling some foods ‘healthy’ is creepy and counter-productive when your audience is young athletes. It is very hard for them to eat enough food to fuel their training, performance, growth, and normal biological functions. Fear-mongering about supposedly ‘unhealthy’ foods is harmful.

It is up to you to think about food as something that can elevate your swimming, and taste good at the same time.

That’s excellent advice.

Parents and coaches can guide a swimmer to healthy foods, but only you can eat the foods to get the benefits.

WAIT! No. Stop. Most parents have no clue what the athletes need to eat, and woe to any young athlete who tries to follow the same ‘diet’ as their parents. It is the author’s job to give good, simple advice about meeting the nutritional needs of adolescent swimmers.

Eating a variety of foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins, contribute nutrients that feed your brain, as well as your muscles.

Brains run on glucose. Fruits and vegetables are a terrible source of glucose (only about 25% of the carbohydrate in most fruits and vegetables is glucose). Whole grains – by definition – have less glucose per ounce than refined grains. ‘Healthy fats:’ no glucose. ‘Lean proteins:’ no glucose (unless broken down and repurposed).

But the really bad advice concerns fiber. The first three items on the list are high fiber foods. High fiber diets are implicated in low bone mineral density and a host of serious metabolic problems for athletes, especially female endurance athletes. Adolescent swimmers need less fiber, not more. As for ‘lean meats,’ increasing the fat content of your diet, including fat from meat, is associated with greater energy availability, athletic performance, and overall health.

Lean meats and fiber are for middle-aged office workers on diets. Adolescent athletes need dense carbohydrate sources and complete proteins with plenty of fat.

Try eating 3 meals and 3 snacks every day during your hardest training periods and take note of how you feel. My bet is you will feel better, stronger, and more energized than when you are eating less food.

Good advice. Eat more and more often.

…there are times when bars or chews or shakes can add needed calories. 

Yes, sometimes you have to go with Gu packets or Gatorade or whatever because that’s just how it is.

Look for wholesome ingredients in these foods: whole grain carbohydrates, naturally occurring sugars from fruit or milk, and healthy fats from nuts or unsaturated oils.

That’s just nonsense.  If the goal is to get extra carbohydrate from a bar, avoid whole grain. Too much fiber. It makes you fuller without providing energy. Athletes need more, not less, energy. And forget the myth about ‘swings in blood sugar’. The 2016 ACSM consensus statement finds no evidence that a food’s glycemic index impacts athletic performance.

Also, there is no evidence that ‘sugars from fruit or milk’ are a better energy source or somehow more ‘wholesome’ than table sugar. Table sugar is half fructose, half glucose and is a measurably better energy source during exercise than either pure fruit sugar (fructose) or pure milk sugar (half glucose, half galactose – a sugar that the body has to convert into glucose). So why should an athlete prefer energy bars made with ‘naturally occuring sugars’? I have no idea, and I doubt the author does either.

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

But wait! Don’t the origins of cardiovascular disease begin at an early age and progress into adulthood, and isn’t elevated dietary fat intake associated with the development of cardiovascular disease? Let’s take a look at some typical research in this field:
Coronary risk factors measured in children and young adults are associated with the early development of coronary artery calcification. 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.
In plain language, sick kids become sick adults. Overweight kids with high blood pressure and bad cholesterol profiles tend to have heart disease as adults. How many of your swimmers are sedentary, overweight, and hypertensive? Also, fat consumption (saturated and unsaturated) raises HDL (the good cholesterol). If their problem were too much dietary fat, it is hard to understand how they could have low HDL. No studies find that healthy teenage athletes – even those who eat like Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps – are more likely to develop heart disease as adults. In fact, studies find endurance athletes do well when placed on high fat diets (50% of total calories), that these diets ‘did not result in adverse changes to the plasma lipoprotein profiles‘ (meaning their cholesterol was fine), and did ‘not increase body weight or adiposity‘, which is a research-y way to say they didn’t get fat. The real danger for teenage athletes, especially endurance athletes and especially women, is Low Energy Availability (LEA) which has significant adverse health effects on athletes (and not insignificantly, hurts performance too). One of the better ways to combat LEA: eat more fat. Diets at the upper end of what is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine – 30% – are associated with top performance and reduction in symptoms of LEA.