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Butter Coffee for Athletes

Can a morning meal of butter, coconut oil and coffee fuel you on race day?

The headline reads, "Athletes are drinking it, should you be?"
"Fans claim it provides lasting energy, staves off hunger, and helps burn fat efficiently."
Luke Ashton, 2014 winner of the 147-mile Viking Way Ultra, reports: "It's my breakfast of choice on race morning."
A low-carbohydrate, high-protein and high-fat diet has been the focus of recent articles like this one, which draw on research from Stephen Phinney's 1983 study on fat adaptation among traditional cultures. He notes:
"Given this juxtaposition of clinical research results favoring carbohydrate against observed functional well-being in traditional cultures consuming none, it is an interesting challenge to understand how these opposing perspectives can be explained"
Basically, although "modern" medical science was pointing to the supremacy of carbohydrates as a source of fuel for enduring physical exertion, traditional hunting cultures such as the Inuit and Native Americans throughout North America were surviving just fine on diets that had low, or no carbohydrate intake.
One of the interesting studies pointed to in this paper is an experiment during World War II which, "involved abruptly switching soldiers in winter training in the Canadian Arctic from standard carbohydrate-containing rations to pemmican."
Pemmican is a mixture of dried meat and fat (US Wellness sells an outstanding version), but the key seems to be in the way a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet is undertaken. Immediately following the switch, soldiers in the above study "rapidly became unable to complete their assigned tasks, which included pulling loaded sleds 25-miles per day through deep snow."
Looking further back, Phinney recounts the Schwatka 1878-1880 expedition.

The Schwatka expedition, sponsored by the New York Herald and the American Geographical Society, departed from the west coast of Hudson's Bay in April of 1879 with 4 Caucasians, 3 families of Inuits, and 3 heavily laden dog sleds. Totaling 18 people, they started out with a month's supply of food (mostly walrus blubber) and a prodigious supply of ammunition for their hunting rifles. After covering over 3000 miles on foot over ice, snow and tundra, all 18 members of the original party plus their 44 dogs returned to Hudson's Bay in March of 1880. Once their initial provisions were depleted, the expedition's only source of additional food was hunting and fishing, as there were no other sources of supply along their route.

The leader of this expedition, Lt. Frederick Schwatka, was a graduate of both West Point and Bellevue Hospital Medical College. His summary of the expedition was published as a news article in the New York Herald in the Fall of 1880, but his written diary was lost for 85 years until its discovery and publication by the Marine Historical Association of Mystic CT in 1965 [6]. This fascinating 117-page saga describes how Schwatka, a frontiersman and U.S. Army surgeon, collaborated with his Inuit guides to accomplish a remarkable feat of physical endurance.
In one notation, Schwatka provides an interesting insight into his weaning from their initial supply of carbohydrate-containing food.
"When first thrown wholly upon a diet of reindeer meat, it seems inadequate to properly nourish the system, and there is an apparent weakness and inability to perform severe exertive fatiguing journeys. But this soon passes away in the course of two or three weeks."
One key, then, seems to be giving the body time to adapt to this change in diet. Phinney recreated several early experiments (the 1878 expedition, and a followup 1929) in a study in 1980, and two more in 1983. From the results of both studies, he notes:
Examining the results of these two ketogenic diet performance studies together indicates that both groups experienced a lag in performance across the first week or two of carbohydrate restriction, after which both peak aerobic power and sub-maximal (60–70% of VO2max) endurance performance were fully restored. In both studies, one with untrained subjects and the other with highly trained athletes who maintained their training throughout the study, there was no loss of VO2max despite the virtual absence of dietary carbohydrate for 4–6 weeks. (Emphasis added.)
A vastly more thorough explanation of Phinney's research and his hypotheses for why the data seem to support his theories on ketogenic diets and physical performance are available in the full paper.
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