Utilization of lipids during exercise in human subjects: metabolic and dietary constraints

Br J Nutr. 1998 Feb;79(2):117-28. doi: 10.1079/bjn19980022.


During endurance exercise, skeletal muscle relies mainly on both carbohydrate (CHO) and fat oxidation to cover energy needs. Numerous scientific studies have shown that increasing the exercise intensity leads to a progressive utilization of CHO. The latter will induce a state of glycogen depletion which is generally recognized as being a limiting factor for the continuation of strenuous exercise. Different dietary interventions have been proposed to overcome this limitation. A high-CHO diet during periods of intense training and competition, as well as CHO intake during exercise, are known to maintain a high rate of CHO oxidation and to delay fatigue. However, it has been recognized also that enhancing fatty acid (FA) oxidation during exercise induces a reduced rate of glycogen degradation, resulting in an improved endurance capacity. This is most strikingly observed as a result of frequent endurance exercise which improves a number of factors known to govern the FA flux and the oxidative capacity of skeletal muscle. Such factors are: (1) blood flow and capillarization; (2) lipolysis of triacylglycerol (TAG) in adipose tissue and circulating TAG and transport of FA from blood plasma to the sarcoplasm; (3) availability and rate of hydrolysis of intramuscular TAG; (4) activation of the FA and transport across the mitochondrial membrane; (5) the activity of enzymes in the oxidative pathway; (6) hormonal adaptations, i.e. sensitivity to catecholamines and insulin. The observation that the plasma FA concentration is an important factor in determining the rate of FA oxidation, and that some dietary factors may influence the rate of FA supply to muscle as well as to the mitochondria, has led to a number of dietary interventions with the ultimate goal to enhance FA oxidation and endurance performance. It appears that experimental data are not equivocal that dietary interventions, such as a high-fat diet, medium-chain TAG-fat emulsions and caffeine intake during exercise, as well as L-carnitine supplementation, do significantly enhance FA oxidation during exercise. So far, only regular endurance exercise can be classified as successful in achieving adaptations which enhance FA mobilization and oxidation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Caffeine / metabolism
  • Carnitine / metabolism
  • Diet*
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism*
  • Physical Education and Training


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids
  • Caffeine
  • Carnitine