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Potatoes Are as Effective as Carbohydrate Gels as Fuel Source for Athletes

Study finds inexpensive tubers comparable to commercial carbohydrate products in trained cyclists

by American Physiological Society
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Newswise — ROCKVILLE, MD (October 29, 2019) — Eating a potato during exercise provides as much fuel and results in similar performance in trained athletes as carbohydrate gels. The study—the first to compare a whole-food source of carbohydrates to a commercially produced sports food—is published ahead of print in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Eating carbohydrates—a proven effective fueling strategy during long periods of exercise—helps maintain blood sugar (glucose) levels while giving athletes the energy they need to power through a workout or race. “Optimal race feeding is somewhat personalized, and race fuel selection will depend on a variety of factors, including taste, cost, and risk of gastrointestinal distress,” researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote. “While commercially available sports foods have been shown to effectively increase exercise performance, it is relevant to identify other high-performance foods to provide diet diversity for an athlete.” This includes whole foods that are both affordable and widely available.

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The research team studied competitive athletes in three separate cycling trials. At 15-minute increments during each two-hour trial, the athletes consumed either baked russet potato puree, a commercially available carbohydrate sports gel product or water. The total portions of potato and gel each contained 120 grams of carbohydrates. The research team collected information such as oxygen uptake, blood glucose and lactate concentrations, heart rate, body temperature, and perceived exertion throughout the trials. During the cycling trial, the athletes rated gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, or bloating.

The results of vital signs testing were comparable during the potato and gel trials. The athletes experienced a slight increase in digestive system distress with the consumption of potatoes compared to the carbohydrate gel or water trials. However, “the regular use of potato puree as a race feeding strategy may reduce [gastrointestinal] symptoms over time,” the research team wrote.

“Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense, and whole-food source of [carbohydrates]; furthermore, they serve as a savory race fuel option when compared to the high sweetness of [carbohydrate] gels,” the researchers wrote.