“It’s a ludicrous conversation, which camp we’re in, high-fat or carb,” Bannock says. “We should be in both. It’s the same with, ‘Which is more important, the front or rear wheel of your bicycle?’ They’re both important.” To settle the dispute once and for all, he shared his best insights from years of research and real-world experience.
It’s All About Context
Bannock refuses to play sides, because he thinks that both are wrong—and both are right. “You have to revolve around one word that best describes how you should approach this debate: context,” he explains. “There are benefits to training in a low-carb state, there are benefits to training in a high-carb state. There are benefits to being keto-adapted, there are benefits to not being keto-adapted. It all depends on the context in which this debate [is] centered.” Know what your goals are, and then tailor your nutrition to suit them.
For most people, this just means a diet with a balanced amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates with carbs primarily in the form of vegetables and fruits. To get more specific, though, for sprinters and other short-duration cyclists, a diet with more emphasis on carbohydrates is typically the ideal, while endurance and long distance riders may see benefits to being fat- or keto-adapted and lowering carbohydrate intake.
Everyone is Different
What works for an elite-level athlete may not work for someone that works a desk job and hops on the bike before dinner. Even elite athletes differ in metabolic rates and have varied reactions to carbohydrates and fat. “Every individual has a unique physiology…influenced by genetics and adaptation to our environments—including habitual diet and our training methods.”
Burning Fat Doesn’t Mean Burning Body Fat
People often misunderstand the notion of being fat-adapted and burning fat, assuming a high fat diet will cause you to burn more body fat. Being fat-adapted really means that we’re burning more of the fat that we eat, not the stuff our body has stored. Energy balance comes down to calories in, calories out, Bannock says, and getting to that fat-adapted state doesn’t always make sense. “I could shove a pound of yak butter in my coffee and demonstrate in an assessment that that increased my ability to burn fat,” he says. “But what we forgot to ask ourselves is, ‘How much fat am I oxidizing, and how much have I just drunk?’” Even though you may burn more fat, you’ve still consumed more than you’re currently able to burn, which results in a net fat gain.
Too Much Is Too Much
Unfortunately, neither diet will allow you to eat as much as you want without fear of weight gain. “Too much fat will still make you fat,” Bannock says. “(And) too much carbohydrate will still make you fat. People think they can just go low-carb and eat as much fat as they want—but that doesn’t work.” For the average cyclist, a calorie is still a calorie, and while the nutrient breakdown matters, an excess of calories of any kind will still lead to fat storage.
You Need Carbs, You Need Fats
Athletes shouldn’t start any diet that eradicates a food group. “That’s a problem, because it’s not just about fuel. Each macronutrient does different things,” Bannock explains. “For example, the immune system, to some degree, needs certain carbohydrate-like substances. Gut bacteria—that we’re starting to learn play essential roles in our health—those bacteria require carbohydrates.” You can’t skip an entire food group and expect to have your best performance, though you can cut back on either fat or carbs.
How Should You Pick? Eat What You Love, in Moderation
If you’re a sugar fiend, going high-fat may not be the most sustainable choice: More likely, it’s going to make you miserable. “If [your weight loss goal] is more about body composition, the arguments of either camp work, but personal preference should always be a factor. A diet is what you can do consistently and for the foreseeable future, not just a day or two. Ask what you’re trying to do with the strategy, and choose the one that makes the most sense for you.
For Your Fastest Cycling Performance, Add Simple Carbs
If you’re looking for performance enhancement, you’re going to need carbohydrates to hit top-end speeds. You’ve likely heard of the ‘fat-burning’ zone, usually considered the low-to-medium end of endurance riding. But the high intensity parts of your ride require glycogen stores, and that’s where carbohydrates play a key role—and if you’re just using fat as fuel, this is where you may run into trouble. “If you’re not able to switch from burning fat to high carbohydrate concentration when a higher intensity is needed—hill climbs, sprints—you won’t be able to pump out your best possible, top-end performance,” Bannock says. “Fat is gears 1 through 5, but in your race car, carbs are gears 6 and 7. You don’t need those gears often, but you want to be able to access them.”
Do You Need Marginal or Maximal Gains?
Bannock’s biggest problem with the high-carb/high-fat debate is that it so often ignores the big picture. Shifting your nutrients is a great move, but if you’re already carrying 45 extra pounds, focusing on overall calorie restriction will give you much more bang for your buck. Fat-adaptation and carbohydrate manipulation are what give elite athletes the ‘marginal gains’ that you often hear about. “It’s all well and good to focus on marginal gains, but if you haven’t focused on the bigger picture, you’re getting the horse and the cart mixed up,” Bannock says. “If you ignore the big picture and focus on the marginal gains, you’ll at best get marginal results. And who wants marginal results?”