In most minds a low-carb diet is the best way to lose weight. Fighters often need to lose a lot of weight in a brief period of time. A calorie-reduced low-carb or ketogenic diet is the most common option, with the consequence of feeling tired and moody all day.
If you are a fighter, the added pressure of making weight might make you aggressively stick to the diet. This might also have negative effects on your training volume, something you don’t want when you’re preparing for a fight.
Studies have proven that low-carb and low-fat diets are the most effective ones  when it comes to losing weight fast. Are they healthy, enjoyable and without side effects for your training and recovery? Definitely not!
Drastically losing weight with a low-carb diet while increasing performance is contradictory. It’s not impossible, but let me tell you that low-carb isn’t the best option. High-carb isn’t a good option either.
Let me share my experience from my previous fight camps:
Preparing for fights on low-carb
Preparing to defend my BAMMA title in 2015 I drastically reduced carbs. I had always done it like that. Someone warned me beforehand: “If you cut out all your carbs, your body will burn less.” Well, I was still eating a bit of fruit now and then so I wasn’t too serious about their advice. I didn’t believe another diet higher in carbs would be an option as the low-carb one was working so well for me to lose weight.
I never missed weight at the 125lbs flyweight limit, so the diet was working. I looked good, I felt good and I performed well in the cage.
I looked shredded! Looks-wise I was in the best shape of my life.
Nevertheless, I was struggling with energy levels and my body switched into energy-saving mode during the weeks of preparation. If I wasn’t training, I was sleeping to just have enough energy for a training session. I felt fatigued after one hour of training and I hated that feeling. That was always 8 weeks of my life not being enjoyable at all, let alone the mental challenges that came from resisting most of the food.
Reintroducing carbs in fight preparation
When I prepared for my second title defence I made the exact same diet mistake. After I had gotten the message that my fight got postponed by three months I knew that I needed to change something:
I was lowering the fat intake a little bit and increased healthy well-timed carbs while restricting portion sizes and applying diet hacks to control my appetite. Basically, it was a diet moderate in all macronutrients and rich in micronutrients. I enjoyed it.
This time the weight didn’t drop immediately. I had to be patient and it dropped gradually, something I was confused about. I also didn’t look as ripped as before my last fight, but I felt better, so I admit to myself:
Fighting isn’t a sport of looks! It’s a sport of performance and skillfully beating the person in front of you.
At that time in my preparation I could train at a high volume, staying in the gym for 3 hours at a time to work on my skills. Even though my week had at least 11 training sessions I was able to train harder and longer, recovering well and maintaining a good mood.
Why are carbs good for fighters?
If you are an athlete in an intense sport like fighting, you need carbs!
During intense anaerobic loads, your muscles need glucose. During these process, your body produces lactic acid, which is a by-product of your muscles using glucose for energy output. Your body even needs glucose for aerobic processes lasting up to 90 minutes. The harder you train, the more carbs you need.
Also, training with depleted glycogen stores makes you prone to illness. Enough reason to have these glycogen storages moderately filled and not empty by eating simple and complex carbs that are rich in fibre, such as oats, legumes, fruit and vegetables.
How to apply carbs in fight camp?
Considering training science and periodisation theories: when you start preparing for a competition, you should first increase training volume and then increase intensity later. There is a time quite early in your preparation when you train frequently AND intensely. Increase your carb intake while you increase the intensity. If you enjoy food of high carb density (e.g. rice), that’s when you can eat moderate amounts of it.
Lower your carb intake a little while you decrease your training volume closer to competition. You will still need carbs as you train with high intensity.
You will lose weight quickly with low-carb by depleting carb storage and losing the connected water. That is what you do during fight week to get the last pounds off, but don’t cut out carbs too early! You need carbs to get fight fit.
Weight loss is possible with carbs…
And I feel that it is better for performance. The danger for your weight is in the excess. Just stop eating super high amounts of refined carbs. Instead, eat food high in volume and micronutrients.
In the end, it comes down to your body type and the ratio that is specifically perfect for your weight loss. These are dynamic numbers that change with the dynamic of your body. Take your time to experiment and adapt. Be patient.
Reference: 1. Johnston BC,Kanters S, Bandayrel K, Wu P, Naji F, Siemieniuk RA, Ball GD, Busse JW, Thorlund K, Guyatt G, Jansen JP, Mills EJ (2014). Comparison of weight loss among named diet programs in overweight and obese adults: a meta-analysis. 2014 Sep 3;312(9):923-33