Fat-Adaptation: Addressing the “expert” dismissal
In the past 6 months it seems the pushback to the fat-adaptation movement in sports has ratcheted up to a shrill and vociferous pitch. Here are links to some of the many articles which tend to dismiss fat-adaptation in its many forms.
Why all the pushback? A lot may have to do with the fact there actually may be real science emerging to support the ever growing numbers of athletes who are adopting fat-adaptation to not only perform better as individuals but to win competitions and set records at the highest level of sports. Previous to this emerging science so-called “experts” could simply brush these real world results off as “anecdotal” thus effectively discrediting the athletes and their coaches’ claims if not the results themselves.
The timing of these articles may have something to do with the emerging science of the FASTER Study and the 2015 ACSM Conference in San Diego where Jeff Volek PhD / RD gave a talk while his grad students displayed posters from the FASTER Study. Much of the data from FASTER challenges what current science says is possible in terms of fat metabolism.
So, if you are reading this most likely you are either already a fat-adapted athlete, considering becoming fat-adapted or are simply curious having heard about this heretical approach and the outsized athletes who excel at ultra-endurance sports using a fat based approach. You are also probably quite confused because the science is so polarized.
The high carb camp has a relatively simple set of messages;
- low carb/keto/metabolically efficiency dietary approaches are “fads”
- carbohydrates are vital for athletic performance
- fats do not have a place in athletics at any level
- fat makes you fat
While this sort of reductionist dogma persists the reality of human physiology is not as simple as these articles make it out to be, far from it. A dissection of these articles will demonstrate their “expert” authors are:
- simply ignorant of some basics of human physiology, particularly in regards to glucose regulation
- omitting information
- not aware and/or ignorant of fat metabolism in its various forms
- so invested in being right they are unwilling to recognize they might be wrong
- utilizing their positions as “experts” rather than engage in a discussion of facts
The articles by Ms. Grady, Ms. Smith and Ms. Clark are written in a tone of dismissiveness of fat adaptation (or the “Paleo Diet”). They do not “suggest” these are fads but outright label them as such. As “experts” Ms. Grady and Ms. Clark they should know better than to make such bold and definite statements. It is just not done in science as science often changes as new information is revealed. The earth was once flat and the sun revolved around the earth and the “experts” used similar dogmatic dismissals to discredit those who thought otherwise.
Furthermore the tone and language of these articles frame the debate in a “case closed” no debate, “I am the expert and take it from me” tone rather than give you, the athlete, balanced information and participation in the process of coming to a conclusion of what is right for you. You are smarter than this and can think for yourself!
The final stylistic/tonal criticism particular to Ms. Grady’s article “METABOLIC EFFICIENCY”: FRIEND OR FOE TO PERFORMANCE?” is the constant overarching use of words and terms that sound very science based yet cover the lack of science in the article. She cites Carnot’s Efficiency Theorem, a Theorem of thermodynamics not biology/physiology, to support her case and even goes as far as to cite her own “Grady Human Performance Theory”. The unfortunate reality is Ms. Grady has positioned herself well in the public eye knowing a lot of people reading her article do not have the university level biology/physiology education to fully understand will take it at face value without critical analysis.
All these articles have a tonal quality which is dismissive of fat for athletics ranging from a mild, doubt-casting style used in the Alex Hutchinson and Amby Burfoot articles to outright condemnation in the Clark, Smith and Grady articles. Not one of these experts truly believes there is merit in the “fat as fuel” approach on any level.
So let’s move beyond the tone of these articles to the substance.
The first order of business is to clarify the use of the term “Metabolic Efficiency”. In athletics this term is used quite extensively for fat metabolism and is often associated with Bob Seebohar’s Metabolic Efficiency Training of ME Training. The way Ms. Grady uses it in her article is as a blanket for fat-adaptation which it is not. ME makes a feeble step in the direction of getting the body to be able to burn more fat relative to an athlete on a high carb/low fat diet but it falls far short of the true fat-adapted state of an athlete following OFM or Nutritional Ketosis. The same is true with Amby Burfoot’s article “New Weight-Loss Study: High Carbohydrate Diet Beats High Fat” because the “High Fat” diet is not one with enough carbohydrate restriction to trigger the metabolic shift to “fat as fuel”.
Thus, other fat-adaptation strategies are lumped into the same low performance category. To achieve the level of performance we see in fat-adapted, OFM athletes severe carbohydrate restriction is necessary to trigger the fundamental shift in physiology.
Without this shift and the rest of the OFM program athletes will generally get exactly the results described in these articles.
So it is important to clarify; “Metabolic Efficiency” is not fat-adaptation/keto-adaptation nor OFM.
It is clear that Ms. Grady and Ms. Clark are limited in their knowledge of fat-adaptation for athletics and seem to see it in the context of starvation ketosis.
Ms. Clark questions the sustainability of a fat-adapted diet by saying: “No, pasta, no potato, no birthday cake, no fun…..” How fun are metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance/diabetes, heart disease, Celiacs/IBS/Crohn’s, GI issues, bonking or cancer relative to giving up some pasta, bread, potatoes and birthday cake?
Ms. Clark further states athletes would do better if they work with a sports dietician to train to be able to consume carbs during long runs rather than fat adaptation to avoid GI distress and fecal urgency. On both points I do not need to “tell” you a thing.
Moving on Ms. Grady tells us about ATP as our energy source and how a molecule of glucose provides a whopping 32 ATP and this accounts for 90% of human ATP synthesis. What she omits is the science of fat metabolism where a single molecule of palmitic acid, a 16 carbon fatty acid commonly circulating in humans as an energy source, releases a NET 129 ATP via beta-oxidation , essentially 4X the ATP of a molecule of glucose!
Ms. Grady is not specific in which particular tissues are unable to convert fatty acids to ATP. Muscle tissue is an excellent converter of fatty acids to ATP via beta-oxidation when the physiological environment is conducive. The brain, on the other hand, is not and why it runs on ketones and glucose. So for athletics the muscles require LOTS of energy production from a sustainable source, fat from intramuscular triglycerides.
In glucose dependent/addicted athlete Ms. Grady may be correct in stating oxidative phosphorylation accounts for 90% of total ATP synthesis because insulin is going to literally shut down beta-oxidation and ketosis. As FASTER data demonstrates this is not the case in a fat-adapted athlete.
Based upon basic biochemistry with fatty acids producing 4X the ATP of glucose I have no idea how she can state that in ketosis metabolism cannot take place sufficiently and ATP output is reduced. I do suspect she may be thinking of starvation ketosis because, when in this particular ketogenic state, the body is trying to conserve energy stores.
This is vastly different from Nutritional Ketosis (NK) where the body actually taps into the vast reserves of fat for fuel at the high rates OFM athletes are experiencing. In a state of NK the athlete is not only using beta-oxidation in muscle tissue to derive energy from fat but the liver is producing ketones AND glucose to meet the energy demands the physical output requires. To reach the levels OFM athletes are achieving requires a holistic approach not simply a dietary shift. It also needs to be highly individualized. There are a whole host of nuanced factors which need to be taken into consideration including the appropriate timing and methods to ingest carbohydrates.
From the OFM vantage point concentrated forms of carbohydrates (CHO) DO play a role, however, that role is very strategic rather than what these “experts” recommend for several health and performance reasons.
In terms of athletic performance CHO’s do provide the quick burning and immediately available energy source necessary for peak performance, however, they burn so quickly and are so limited they should be reserved for the upper aerobic and anaerobic spectrum of exercise. Every effort should be made to “push” the fat-burning aerobic spectrum so fat is the majority energy substrate even at the upper level. Observationally in OFM athletes, CHO’s have a much more potent, sustainable effect, using less.
What is most disturbing about these articles is the blind and copious CHO use they recommend without a caveat. Concentrated forms of dietary CHO are sugar (principally glucose) as far as your body is concerned. Glucose is VERY tightly controlled in humans. Healthy fasting glucose levels are 1 teaspoon of sugar as glucose in an adult male (75-95 mg/dl). This is your ideal blood sugar level.
What is insidious about this is not the obvious suspects like sodas, highly processed foods from refined grains and sugars but many foods athletes consider as “healthy”. A whole grain bagel literally “mainlines” 8-12 teaspoons of glucose into your bloodstream, which to a T1 diabetic, is potentially fatal. This is a key flaw in the Amby Burfoot article : “New Weight-Loss Study: High-Carb Diet Beats High-Fat”, because the high-fat diet used in the study actually had way too much carbohydrate to trigger fat metabolism, something the article attempts to dismiss.
Now while our bodies are robust and can deal with the occasional use of CHO most of us simply do not have the genetics to sustain this much sugar in the diet long term as advocated by these articles. For a layman’s explanation of what happens physiologically read Crisis Management 101:
The other major issue with recommending concentrated CHO as the main macronutrient in the diet of an athlete is concentrated CHO’s are relatively devoid of nutrition. This is why the focus of the OFM diet is on “Nutrition NOT Calories”.
Animal fats are key to athletes because they contain key fats like the essential Omega 3 fatty acids DHA & EPA. They also contain fat-soluble Vitamins like A, D, & K2 in highly bio-available forms. An unappreciated role of fat is for the assimilation of protein.
At its core these authors are caught in physiologically self-affirming trap of carbohydrate addiction because the more CHO you have in the diet the more you are dependent upon them due to rising insulin levels and eventual loss of insulin sensitivity impeding the body’s ability to burn fat. This is coupled with confirmational bias.
As emerging research is suggesting fat can play a much bigger role in performance than previously thought on the front end of “bioenergetics”, the term Ms. Grady used to push her insistence that a CHO driven diet as the only way to perform.
But, more importantly, obtaining optimal nutrition and minimizing the laundry list of damage due to chronic high CHO diets should be made a priority. While these are not direct front line performance issues to consider they do affect front line performance in both short term and especially long term.
The way we suggest people actually view concentrated forms of carbohydrates is as a legal PED (PED=Performance Enhancing Drug) as they meet the criteria:
- Do they boost performance?
- Are they addictive?
- Are there serious consequences to overuse?
- Is performance/health compromised long term?
While carbohydrates can and do boost performance (a good thing) the concept of “CHO as a legal PED” becomes clear when you understand…..
a) Carbohydrates actually are NOT an essential macronutrient for humans
b) How addictive they are physiologically, emotionally and psychologically
c) The real and serious physiological, metabolic and health consequences as a result of overconsumption
……then you can see why it is important to utilize concentrated forms of CHO “Strategically” and judiciously to maximize the benefits, obtain your personal performance & health potential while eliminating/minimizing/mitigating downside risks.
OFM is not a “fad”. OFM is a holistic program to getting the body back to using fat as the principal fuel source for aerobic metabolism, the way evolution shaped humans. This approach is based upon science and real world results athletes who have adopted OFM are achieving. We won’t “tell” you our system is better but do invite you to investigate for yourself how getting your body back to burning “fat as fuel” will make you a better, stronger and healthier athlete not to mention when you do use carbohydrates they will work much better than they do in the world advocated by the high carb “experts”.