Paddle Healthy: Don’t Forget Fat
When it comes to how we should eat, nutritionists, scientists and the diets they influence tend to move in circles with what’s “good” and “bad” for us. And fat has gotten a pretty rough shake in the dietary roundabout. In the 1970s and 1980s, as heart disease rates continued to rise, the so-called ‘experts’ aimed at saturated fat and singled out eggs as artery cloggers. With the American Heart Association and others going to war, per person, egg consumption fell from 320 a year in 1967 to 233 a year in 1991. And even some recent research seems biased by the old anti-egg stance, with one now infamous 2012 study headline screaming, “Eggs are as bad for you as smoking.”
And it’s not just eggs that have come under fire for supposedly being ‘unhealthy.’ In the 90s, as the low fat craze began, coconut oil was vilified for its high saturated fat content, as were butter and other full fat dairy products. But years later, when people started analyzing disease stats and other data from the ‘low fat = not fat’ years they realized something: reducing fat intake did not reduce obesity rates. And in fact, some of the artificial substance (those ingredients that you can’t pronounce) in low fat or fat free products did more harm than saturated fat. The link between saturated fat intake and heart disease is also now in question.
When it comes to sports performance, there’s also been a long and sometimes very bitter debate over fat intake. The Paleo Diet advocates, “moderate to higher amounts of fat, but with increased quantities of healthful omega-3 and monounsaturated fats” rather than fat from “fatty meats,” processed foods or high quantities of dairy products. The body can be taught to burn fat more efficiently to provide long-lasting fuel for exercise, advocates of the Paleo and ketogenic (high fat, low carb diet) approaches believe, a position supported by some recent studies. This should be of interest to paddlers, as protein and fat can provide longer-lasting energy for downwinders and other long sessions than the fast-digesting carbohydrates needed for short sprints.
So what are we to think about fat now, after years of conflicting evidence and hype? Certainly, it can’t just be a fat free for all, as it’s clear that highly processed fatty foods are indeed bad for your health. But not all fat is created equal, and it’s fair to say that many of us could use more of certain types of ‘healthy’ fats in our diet, so let’s jump into some suggestions for fueling with fat.
We’re not big fans of promoting this or that diet, but the Mediterranean diet consistently delivers when it comes to overall health, wellbeing and longevity. One of the reasons is olive oil, which a recent report indicates is central in the Mediterranean diet’s ability to reverse the harmful effects of metabolic syndrome. One of the most prevalent forms of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), olive oil is proven to reduce overall cholesterol and harmful LDL levels, and may also contribute to better insulin control. Olive oil also contains vitamins E and K and the anti-inflammatory oleocanthal, which some studies have shown is more effective than ibuprofen, and certainly kinder on the liver. Plus it tastes great on everything from salads to roasted vegetables. Look for the extra virgin olive, which is the cold pressed and least processed form of Greece, Italy and Spain’s favorite oil.
Coconut water is arguably overrated (at least the highly processed kind), but in just about any other form—whole, shredded, or oil—it’s nutritional gold. The knock on coconut used to be that it’s high in saturated fat. True, but the variety found in coconut is nature’s richest source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These can not only raise metabolic rate, increase satiety and enhance thyroid function, but may also have a positive impact on brain function. There are a million and one MCT supplements out there, but why not go straight to the source with coconut?
Sustainable, Wild-Caught Fish
Another central component of the Mediterranean diet, fish provides omega 3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation, decrease cortisol levels, improve skin elasticity, and perhaps even increase strength gains. It’s best to choose wild-caught fish when possible, as it contains less heavy metals and other pollutants. Also, look for your seafood to come from sustainable catches in areas that aren’t being overfished (the blue Marine Stewardship Council label is a solid indicator). Not a fish fan? Then you can get omega 3s from grass-fed beef (see below), fish oil capsules (on our list of must-have supplements), chia or flax seeds.
One of the great things about nuts is that there are so many to choose from to suit your taste and texture preferences. While all nuts are high in heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, each variety has its own health benefits. Walnuts are king when it comes to omega 3 content, which can balance out the omega 6s in nuts, which may cause inflammation if consumed in excess. Brazil nuts are a rich source of selenium, a mineral that promotes healthy liver function and may have cancer-fighting properties. Cashews provide a lot of iron, which assists in blood oxygen transport, and zinc, which may reduce the duration of colds.
Grass-Fed Organic Beef and Dairy Products
With the exception of eggs, few foods have come under greater fire in the cyclical War on Fat than meat and dairy. And while it’s best to avoid giant blocks of cheese, fatty cuts of meat and highly processed varieties (pink slime burger, anyone?), such flak is largely undeserved when it comes to consuming moderate amounts of grass-fed dairy products and meat. There’s a reason that entrepreneur/author/mad scientist Dave Asprey puts Kerrygold grass-fed butter in his wildly popular Bulletproof Coffee. It’s rich in omega 3 fatty acids (see the entry on fish, above), increases cancer-fighting CLA levels and contains vitamin k2, which actually prevents arteriosclerosis. And, only grass-fed dairy products contain beta carotene—the vision-boosting good stuff that carrots are famous for. Grass-fed beef is also higher in omega 3s, and contains four times more vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle. If your meat and dairy are also organic, you’re limiting exposure to health-harming pesticides and herbicides as well.