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Got carbs? Carbohydrates may be key for bone health in endurance athletes

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Nutrition is important for athletic performance, especially in athletes with high levels of intense activity like endurance athletes. There are many popular diets with different potential performance impacts for these athletes, including ones that could affect bone health. But it is challenging to tease apart which aspects of a diet result in health impacts. A group of researchers led by Louise Burke, Ph.D., a professor at the Australian Catholic University and a collaborator with the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance’s Female Athlete Program, set out to provide some clarity by comparing how three specific diet programs affect bone health in the short-term.

They recruited elite male racewalkers and divided them into groups that followed a different diet each week. At the end of each week the researchers collected blood samples before and after completing a 25-km racewalk to test them for different biomarkers related to bone breakdown and bone formation. 

Compared against a baseline diet with high calories and high carbs, a low-carb/high-fat diet resulted in biomarker changes that suggest a negative impact on bone health – with indications of greater bone breakdown and also a decrease in bone formation after exercise. Those following just a low-calorie diet only had blood marker changes associated with increased bone breakdown after exercise. The authors suggest the blood markers used in this study may be useful for monitoring bone health over short timespans, which could be particularly useful for assessing nutritional and pharmacological interventions.

This study was conducted as part of the Female Athlete Program, a Wu Tsi Human Performance Alliance Innovation Hub at Boston Children’s Hospital, which focuses on research into the health and performance in girls and women, including on topics related to nutrition and bone health.  

Read the full scientific article in Journal of Bone and Mineral Research

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