Move over carbs — is fat the new athlete fuel?

An interesting development among many elite athletes, especially those competing in ultra-endurance sport, is that they are abandoning their typical high-carb diet in favor of a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet.

This represents a completely new paradigm in sports nutrition. For decades it has been thought that athletes require substantial amounts of carbs to support optimal performance and recovery. These pioneering low-carb athletes are not just finishing races; some of them are winning and setting records. 

My research team has been performing detailed metabolic studies of some of these elite, low-carb athletes to better understand what they eat and how it has changed their bodies. Many of these athletes are consuming as low as 10% of their calories as carbs and over 70% as fat. The fat sources they emphasize include olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, butter, cream, avocados, eggs, cheese, salmon, and fattier versions of beef, pork, and chicken.

The most distinct and extraordinary finding was how much fat these athletes can burn. Relative to their matched high-carb counterparts, their rates of peak fat burning during exercise were more than twice as high (1.5 grams versus 0.7 grams of fat burned per minute). During submaximal exercise (65% of peak) about 90% of their fuel needs were met by fat, compared to 50% for the high-carb athletes. This data provides compelling evidence that athletes can free themselves from their dependency on carbs. Realize it takes several weeks to several months to fully adapt to a low-carb diet. Besides gaining access to your body’s plentiful fat stores, eating a low-carb diet has a myriad of other benefits including easier fat loss, improved energy levels, better tolerance to stress, faster recovery, and improved health markers.

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