Federer: low-carb champion in ‘Banting’ court?

There’s good reason that Swiss champion Roger Federer is a phenomenon on and off court. From a brat who used to throw his racket around every time he lost a match as a child, he has matured into a sporting superstar.

He has evolved into an elegant, graceful, hard-working tennis professional. His diet will be just one factor. It’s not all healthy and Federer is known to have a sweet tooth.

But when he prepares for competition, you can bet that he goes for optimum fuel from foods.

Yet pundits were quick to write Federer off a just few short years ago. Boy, did they get that wrong!

It helps that Federer comes from a secure family background with supportive parents. Mother Lynette is South African, which makes me even more partial to him. He is married to Mirka, a former tennis champion herself. The couple has four children, twin girls and twin boys. Fatherhood clearly suits Federer.

He established an eponymous foundation in 2003 to give children in southern Africa access to quality education.

Better still, he demonstrates a seductive core humility. It scaffolds the athleticism and consummate skill with which he demolishes opponents, most recently British Number 1 Andy Murray in the Wimbledon semi-final.

Currently Number 2 in the world, Federer made it to the Wimbledon final this year to face World Number 1, Serbian Novak Djokovic. That makes it his 26th grand slam final, extending the all-time record he established at Wimbledon in 2009. It’s a repeat of last year’s final. He lost but his performance throughout the championship was extraordinary as it has been this year.

Team Federer

Like Djokovic, Federer has a highly intelligent, close-knit team of coaches, physios and nutrition experts supporting him. Among them is former Swedish tennis champion Stefan Edberg.

Djokovic has revealed the diet and exercise plan that has made him the world’s top tennis player. He went gluten-free a few years ago, documented it in his book, Serve to Win. Djokovic credits diet in part with dramatically improving his game. He now eschews bread, pasta and anything made with flour. According to a feature in UK’s The Independent, he avoids dairy as well.

Federer plays much closer to his chest when it comes to what he actually eats and drinks building up to big matches. One Internet report suggested that Federer eats a high-carbohydrate, low-fat  (HCLF) diet. My gut instinct tells me that is simply unlikely to be true. A growing body of solid science shows that an optimum diet for elite sports performance is the exact opposite. And no, it’s not just Cape Town sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes who says so.

Noakes, a University of Cape Town emeritus professor, has pioneered low-carb, high-fat (LCHF, AKA Banting) for people with insulin resistance, but also for elite sports performance (Click here for an Idiot’s Guide to Noakes’ LCHF diet).

He bases his work groundbreaking research by top US scientists and professors Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek. Phinney and Volek are known as the “keto kings” and authors of The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance.

Evidence for low-carb

Prof Jeff Volek, left, and Prof Stephen Phinney

In the book, they investigate how a low-carb diet can and should be used by athletes. Their earlier book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, gives the evidence low-carbohydrate diets to treat a range of illnesses. In particular, they look at low-carb to manage insulin resistance (IR, aka carbohydrate intolerance).

They point out that athletes as a group on the continuum of IR “cluster on the side of insulin sensitivity”. And most athletes “do not have anywhere near the same level of carbohydrate intolerance as someone who is overweight with metabolic syndrome or diabetes”.

That raises the question of why they would then recommend a low-carb diet for athletes. After all, conventional nutritional “wisdom” still holds that carbohydrates are the best fuel for the body.

Phinney and Volek diplomatically say that despite the best intentions, the majority view “does not always represent the truth”.

They say that a high-carb diet really is bad for most people. And especially elite athletes because it “locks them into dependence on carbohydrate as the dominant fuel for exercise”.

And, of course, every endurance athlete knows what happens to performance when their carbohydrate tank runs dry: “Performance goes down in flames.”

It’s an unfortunate reality, say Phinney and Volek, that the human body is not naturally designed to switch easily from carbs to fat as its predominant fuel.

Becoming ‘fat-adapted’

“Once the (carbs) are gone, you can’t power your performance with fat,”  Phinney and Volek say. That’s despite the fact that a carbohydrate-depleted body still has tens of thousands of fat calories on hand.

The key fact underlying their book is that athletes – and the rest of us more ordinary mortals – can train the body to burn fat. And all they need to do is simply change the diet over a period of a few weeks. In that way, the body turns blood sugar and glycogen into secondary fuels.

“Once you make this transition, you can then train harder, perform longer, and recover faster,” they say.

Therein lies the simple answer to why both endorse a low-carb lifestyle for athletes:

“ This strategy has worked for us and many people we know,” They say.  More importantly, we have both conducted and published human research that supports this approach, adding to a growing body of literature that now points to the merits of reducing dietary carbohydrates to optimise fat metabolism.”

They have accumulated a “unique knowledge base” that they want to share so you too can experience it for yourself.

I’d be surprised – stunned, more likely – to find that Federer and his team are unaware of this unique knowledge base. Or that they are oblivious to its implications for sports performance and health in both body and mind. I have little doubt that he is Banting or a version not far from its basic principles.

At the very least, Federer is highly unlikely to be eating refined, highly-processed, high-sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. He also shows no signs of insulin resistance and, therefore, has no need to keep carbs very low (in the ketogenic range).

I’d say overall his lean, mean physique, stamina and endurance levels on court are strong signals of a Banting-inspired eating regimen. And he definitely does not demonstrate fat phobia.