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Why Older Athletes Need To Eat Fat

Omega-3's help prevent age-related muscle loss.

Omega-3’s help prevent age-related muscle loss.

If you haven’t experienced diminished performance, the need for more recovery between hard efforts, or the frustration of just not feeling strong despite consistent training, then you likely will—you’re just not old enough yet. Very few people can continue to excel at their chosen sport(s) as they age unless they make adaptations to account for their body’s natural degeneration. In addition to tweaking training plans to include more strength and flexibility work and adequate rest, athletes should pay particular attention to their diet, especially the type of fat they consume. You’ve surely heard about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but are you paying attention?

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A 2011 study published in the American Society for Nutrition reported that when a group of 16 healthy older adults were given either corn oil or omega-3 fatty acids for eight weeks, the group who consumed the omega-3s saw increases in muscle formation. Study authors advocate the consumption of omega-3s for the prevention and treatment of sarcopenia, or age-related loss of muscle.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot produce on its own. Omega-6s reportedly lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduce inflammation and protect against heart disease; safflower, corn, cottonseed and soybean oils contain omega-6s. Studies also reveal that omega-3s may prevent heart disease and stroke, but what makes them even more vital to life is that they assist with normal body functions like controlling blood clotting and building brain cells. Excellent sources of omega-3s include fatty fish like salmon, canola and soybean oil, flaxseed, walnuts and green vegetables like Brussels sprouts, kale and spinach.

Dr. Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease and prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health recommends that everyone eat at least one rich source of omega-3 fatty acids every day. Every day. Getting your daily dose of omegas is absolutely achievable with a little bit of planning. Here are some tips:

— Make your own vinaigrettes to drizzle over salad (including spinach and kale) greens using safflower, canola, soybean, flaxseed or cottonseed oil. *See note below about storage and usage.

— Buy bags of walnuts and store them in the freezer (to prevent spoilage). Sprinkle over salads, oatmeal or cereal. Use them in place of other nuts in pesto, pastas, rice pilafs, trail mix and granola.

— While fresh, local, organic, wild-caught salmon and other fish may be preferable, it’s not always the most budget-friendly option. Try to buy this type of fresh fish when you can, but there are instances where canned boneless, skinless wild salmon may be a good solution for use in casseroles, pastas, salads, wraps and burritos.

— Buy a jar of ground flaxseed (refrigerate after opening) and sprinkle it over cereal, yogurt and oatmeal. Include it in baked goods like breads, muffins, granola bars and even cookies—it has a nutty, toasted flavor.

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*Omega fatty acids aren’t destroyed by high-heat cooking as long as they’re fresh. Oil can spoil, particularly more delicate nut oils—you can store these in the refrigerator after opening to extend their shelf life; they’ll congeal while inside the cool fridge, but just let them warm up on the counter for a bit before using. Follow the “best by” date on bottles and store less delicate oils in a dark, cool pantry.