Needs-Based Eating for MMA
Needs Based Eating for MMA

Needs-based eating is a highly flexible dietary regimen based on a basic principle: eat according to need. While it can promote health in the average person, it is of particular importance to athletes in sports which require aerobic and anaerobic performance (e.g. MMA).

Needs-based eating is flexible with respect to energy substrates. It entails tailoring macronutrient ratios and caloric intake for a specific desired effect, such as long-term adaptation vs immediate performance, aerobic vs anaerobic activity, weight-cutting vs bulking.

Stress vs Adaptation

The fundamental principle of sports conditioning is that prolonged exposure to a stressor results in an adaptation to that stress. It logically follows that to maximize sports performance, the athlete’s training should mimic, as closely as feasible, the conditions of a competitive scenario.

For a sport like MMA, those conditions which are relevant to needs-based eating are:

  • Aerobic Capacity: how long can you move at a slow pace? (e.g. jogging)
  • Anaerobic Capacity: how many explosive bursts of movement are you capable of? (e.g. sprinting)
  • Weight Cutting: how much pre-fight weight can you cut without hindering performance?

In order to maximize performance along those 3 conditions, we first have to understand their limiting factors and then target them specifically by exacerbating our exposure to that stress for a significant period of time. While all 3 of those conditions apply different types of stress on the body, they all share one stressor: energy substrate shortages. As such, their adaptations significantly overlap in the form of metabolic flexibility.

Metabolic flexibility refers to the ability to utilize either carbs or fat as a primary source of fuel and the ability to alter that mechanism during exercise. Most people are metabolically rigid and, in the absence of prolonged exposure to ketosis, only capable of utilizing carbs as a primary source of fuel in an efficient manner.

Marathon runners tend to be metabolically very flexible. After 25 minutes of aerobic activity, the body enters ketosis – a carb-sparing mechanism. This means that a marathon runner will spend hours doing a calorically intensive activity on fat. Sprinters, similarly, enter ketosis to spare carbs for subsequent sprints. Both types of exercise result in carb depletion and the adaptation to low-carb conditions is the ability to spare carbs for high-intensity bouts while relying on fats for low-intensity movement.


In aerobic activity, there can be many limiting factors, such as underdeveloped vascularity, an unadapted cardiac muscle, and a shortage of mitochondrial respiration. Prolonged exposure to these limits results in an increase in those limits, i.e. vascular development, cardiac strength and hypertrophy, and increased mitochondrial respiration.

With anaerobic activity, there are additional limiting factors, such as the insufficient ability to recruit motor neurons, insufficient muscle strength, etc. Sprinting, for example, exposes the body to these limits and, in so doing, results in an increase in those limits.

Once all of these performance limits are lifted, one limit remains: the ability to spare carbs, i.e. to rely on fat for low-intensity movement. How do we lift this limit? By including prolonged exposure to low-carb conditions as part of our training regimen. In a sport like MMA, many would balk at the idea because it is such a carb-intensive sport. However, mere exposure to low-carb conditions is not a keto diet. How can we apply the stress of low-carb conditions, and thus adapt to it, while training MMA?

Solution: Needs-based eating

Basically, carb up prior to a glycolytic training session (pad work, rolling, drilling, sprinting), but stay in ketosis at all other times and stay fasted for aerobic activity. There is some recent precedent for this type of regimen at the elite levels of performance.

Tristar Gym is the best MMA gym in the world; it’s where Georges St-Pierre trains. Here is Tristar’s head coach on his diet recommendation:

He doesn’t explicitly recommend being in ketosis, but by carbing up in the morning and eating keto meals (or nothing) after training, you are absolutely going to be in a state of ketosis by the next morning. Elite aerobic trainer Chris Hinshaw takes this to another level by recommending fasted aerobics:

An added benefit to this extreme metabolic flexibility is the ability to cut weight before a fight. Generally, a fighter’s day consists of 2 training sessions per day: MMA and Jiu Jitsu. 2-3 months prior to a fight, however, a fighter starts a rigorous training camp with a modified daily schedule: MMA and conditioning. 1 week prior to the fight, the fighter de-loads, i.e. takes it easy. No more sprinting or weights, only light MMA sessions and fasted aerobics.

At this stage, you can lose 10 easy pounds simply by going fully keto, i.e. ditch the carbs. 3 days prior to the weigh-in you can water load to pee out another 5 pounds and, on the day of the weigh-in (or a day prior), you put on a sweatsuit and take a long walk to cut whatever weight is left to lose (you can lose a pound every 10 minutes). Here is Chael Sonnen and Greg Doucette on the issue of weight-cutting:

Going keto would be a nightmare if you weren’t already adapted to it, thanks to needs-based eating. The downside is that it can take up to 3 months of continuous ketosis to successfully pull of needs-based eating. The transition comes with all the same side effects of a traditional keto diet: the keto flu (headaches, fatigue, …) and a decline in sports performance for the first 2 to 3 weeks.

Personally, I seem to be an outlier high-responder. The average person might not necessarily benefit as much from this diet.

Obligatory disclaimer: consult a physician before trying a diet or fasting or whatever. (bla bla bla don’t sue me)

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Conceptual Open-Source License (COSL)

The original ideas and arguments presented herein are published under the COSL license.