Re-examining high-fat diets for sports performance: did we call the 'nail in the coffin' too soon?

PUBLISHED

November 2015

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Abstract

During the period 1985–2005, studies examined the proposal that adaptation to a low-carbohydrate (<25 % energy), high-fat (>60 % energy) diet (LCHF) to increase muscle fat utilization during exercise could enhance performance in trained individuals by reducing reliance on muscle glycogen. As little as 5 days of training with LCHF retools the muscle to enhance fat-burning capacity with robust changes that persist despite acute strategies to restore carbohydrate availability (e.g., glycogen supercompensation, carbohydrate intake during exercise). Furthermore, a 2- to 3-week exposure to minimal carbohydrate (<20 g/day) intake achieves adaptation to high blood ketone concentrations. However, the failure to detect clear performance benefits during endurance/ultra-endurance protocols, combined with evidence of impaired performance of high-intensity exercise via a down-regulation of carbohydrate metabolism led this author to dismiss the use of such fat-adaptation strategies by competitive athletes in conventional sports. Recent re-emergence of interest in LCHF diets, coupled with anecdotes of improved performance by sportspeople who follow them, has created a need to re-examine the potential benefits of this eating style. Unfortunately, the absence of new data prevents a different conclusion from being made. Notwithstanding the outcomes of future research, there is a need for better recognition of current sports nutrition guidelines that promote an individualized and periodized approach to fuel availability during training, allowing the athlete to prepare for competition performance with metabolic flexibility and optimal utilization of all muscle substrates. Nevertheless, there may be a few scenarios where LCHF diets are of benefit, or at least are not detrimental, for sports performance. Sports Med. 45(Suppl 1):33-49.

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