The Randle Cycle – How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review]

The Randle Cycle - How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review] - 1 - Fig.1


In a recent Ben Greenfield podcast, Ben and his guest, Denise Minger, discussed about the Randle Cycle – which is also known as the glucose-fatty acid cycle. This cycle describes the competition between metabolic fuels.

I read a few papers about the Randle Cycle as it sparked my interest. In this post I’m going into the specifics of one of these papers. I suspect that many people are confused about how this works.

This paper is a review published in The American Journal of Physiology (APS), Endocrinology and Metabolism and it’s open access. [1]

The Randle Cycle

In 1963, Lancet published a paper by Randle et al. that proposed a “glucose-fatty acid cycle” to describe fuel flux between and fuel selection by tissues. The original biochemical mechanism explained the inhibition of glucose oxidation by fatty acids. Since then, the principle has been confirmed by many investigators. At the same time, many new mechanisms controlling the utilization of glucose and fatty acids have been discovered.[1]

You can read the initial paper here (requires subscription). You may access it for free through your library. [2]

For example, it was known that the high insulin/glucagon ratio of the postabsorptive state promotes lipid and carbohydrate storage. And it was also known that a high glucagon/insulin ratio, characteristic of the fasted state, stimulates adipose tissue lipolysis and hepatic glucose production to preserve glucose supply to those tissues that rely exclusively on this sugar.

Lower carbohydrate intake may lead to lower postabsorptive insulin/glucagon ratio.

Another aspect of the Randle cycle often not appreciated is the inhibition of adipose tissue lipolysis by glucose and insulin via a mechanism involving stimulation of glucose uptake and reesterification of fatty acids in the presence of glucose-derived glycerol 3-phosphate [2]

Simply put, circulating glucose and insulin inhibit fat breakdown and promote triglyceride synthesis, while at the same time promotes glucose uptake by tissues, as needed.

The Randle Cycle - How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review] - 4 - Fig.5

One of the major points in the Randle Cycle is that, under normal conditions, only one of the fuels – fats or carbohydrates – may be predominantly oxidized. There are some exceptions. Keep reading.

Glucose is Spared and Rerouted

In the fasted state, activation of lipolysis provides tissues with fatty acids, which become the preferred fuel for respiration. In the liver, β-oxidation of fatty acids fulfills the local energy needs and may lead to ketogenesis. As “predigested fatty acids,” ketone bodies are preferentially oxidized in extrahepatic tissues. By inhibiting glucose oxidation, fatty acids and ketone bodies so contribute to a glucose-sparing effect, an essential survival mechanism for the brain during starvation. In addition, inhibition of glucose oxidation at the level of pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) preserves pyruvate and lactate, both of which are gluconeogenic precursors. [3]

Conversely to the fed and the post-absorptive state, the fasted stated is characterized by increased oxidation of fatty acids and ketones (in normal people and under normal circumstances).

As pointed out by researchers, the inhibition of glucose oxidation by fatty acids is not restricted to the fasted state. It may happen under feeding conditions (after high fat meals) and during exercise when fatty acids and ketones are oxidized as well. In such conditions, glucose that is not oxidized contributes and may explain the rapid resynthesis of glycogen post-exercise. [4] [5] [6]

The mechanism of post-exercise glycogen resynthesis seems not to be significantly different in fat-adapted vs. non-fat adapted athletes, a mechanisms which is described in detailed in a recent paper by Volek and colleagues [7]. I reviewed the paper in this post.

Fatty Acids and PPARs Activity

Certain fatty acids can bind to peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs), a class of transcription factors endowed with hypolipidemic action, which regulate lipid metabolism through their long-term transcriptional effects. [1]

PPARα’s expression in the liver, heart, and kidneys promotes the transcription of genes involved in beta oxidation and fatty acid uptake. PPARα also controls lipid metabolism by regulating LPL (lipoprotein lipase) expression.

Stress Overrides Fatty Acid Inhibition of Glucose Metabolism

Under normal, fed and fasted, states and when there is no immediate acute stress, only one of the fuels is predominantly oxidized. However, there are exceptions.

Under hemodynamic stress conditions, the inhibition of carbohydrate oxidation by fatty acids is abrogated. [1]

AMPk is activated when the AMP/ATP is higher. The purpose of AMPk is to regulate/restore energy levels.

The Randle Cycle - How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review] - 3 - Fig.4

Exercise and physical activity lead to AMPK activation in skeletal muscle, and the extent of this activation depends on the intensity and duration of exercise. Similarly, oxygen deprivation activates AMPK, as is the case in the ischemic heart. Once activated, AMPK regulates energy balance by turning on catabolic ATP-generating pathways (fatty acid oxidation and glycolysis) while switching off anabolic ATP-consuming processes (lipid and protein synthesis). [8] [9]

When oxygen is available, AMPk activation promotes fatty acid oxidation.

Under these conditions, efficient utilization of both substrates maximizes ATP production, providing an immediate metabolic adaptation to the stress conditions responsible for AMPK activation and protecting the heart during ischemic stress. Therefore, AMPK overrules the biochemical mechanisms involved in the Randle cycle, and inhibition of glucose uptake by fatty acids no longer prevails. [1]

Another situation when both fats and carbs are recruited for oxidation has been observed in hearts stimulated with adrenaline.

Stimulation of heart glycolysis by this hormone and its second messenger cyclic AMP overrules the control by other oxidizable substrates (30, 38, 183). This results from a concerted action of adrenergic receptor activation on glucose uptake, glycogen breakdown, PFK flux, and PDH activity mediated by cyclic AMP and intramitochondrial [Ca ] accumulation. [10] [11]

In addition, epinephrine promotes fatty acid oxidation as a result of ACC inactivation by the cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase (PKA; see below). Under these conditions, the heart oxidizes both glucose and fatty acids, but it uses carbohydrates to sustain the large increase in heart function induced by epinephrine. [12]

Mitochondrial Events Control Fuel Selection

Cell respiration is enhanced when fatty acids are used. The NADH/NAD+ ratio increases significantly. Mitochondrial membrane potential also increases. This leads to an excess of energy production.

The Randle Cycle - How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review] - 5 - Fig.6

However, increased energy supply does not entirely explain the stimulation of respiration, because at any given rate of respiration, ΔΨ is significantly lower with fatty acids, indicating increased energy consumption and/or a loss of efficiency of oxidative phosphorylation. [1]

When fatty acids are oxidized over glucose, there are more electrons being transferred to complex 2 of the respiratory chain, rather than complex 1.

This difference is reflected in a less efficient oxidative phosphorylation (ATP/O), because electrons entering complex 1 result in a higher ATP/O ratio than those entering complex 2, being equivalent to a form of “intrinsic uncoupling.” A loss of efficiency could also result from “redox slipping,” i.e., inefficient coupling between electron and proton fluxes, or from proton leak across the mitochondrial inner membrane, which also contributes to the stimulation of respiration by fatty acids. [1]

There are many references cited here. For the full list, please see the article [1].

To maintain ΔΨ and ATP synthesis, mitochondria have no other choice but to increase respiration. Moreover, high values of ΔΨ can prevent normal electron flow and lead to reversed electron flow and eventually to enhanced production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) (Fig. 7). Therefore, by oxidizing fatty acids, mitochondria increase their respiration, their membrane potential, and the production of ROS. [1]

The Randle Cycle - How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review] - 6 - Fig.7

The authors explain the potential mechanisms by which mitochondria may prefer the oxidation of fatty acids over glucose. As further noted, when fatty acids and glucose flood the system – like when following a ‘balanced’ diet – glucose toxicity and pathologic conditions may arise.

High values of ΔΨ lead to proton leak, reversed electron flow, and ROS production (Fig. 7). As described above, active fatty acid oxidation induces such a state. Flooding the system with glucose on top of fatty acids is expected to induce considerable damage to the mitochondria if energy demand is not concomitantly increased. An overabundant diet rich in carbohydrates and fat should force-feed electrons from glucose into the respiratory chain, in which the already prevailing high ΔΨ prevents electron flow. [1]

Such high energy supply, if not used, will further worsen the jamming of electrons in the respiratory chain and eventually result in massive ROS production and mitochondrial damage (Fig. 7). [1]

Glucose toxicity and mitochondria damage may be avoided through physical exercise, when the energy produced would be matched by the energy utilized. In this case, ΔΨ will decrease. The authors wonder whether glucose tolerance/insulin resistance is not a mechanism to protect against glucose toxicity. In a similar context, I wrote about insulin resistance viewed from an evolutionary perspective.

Moreover, they discuss the possibility of muscle insulin resistance being the result of lower oxidation of fatty acids in the mitochondria. Since they are available and cannot be oxidized, they are used for the synthesis of DAG (diacylglycerol and ceramide), leading to stress-induced protein kinases that inhibit insulin signaling [1] [13] [14]

Concluding Thoughts

Accurate picture of the mitochondrial wreckage of many folks today:

The slowly progressing pathological process could be the consequence of a continuous overabundant diet enriched in both carbohydrate and lipid, unmatched by physical activity. In the mitochondria, the redox pressure from both substrates would provoke a continuous production of ROS, resulting first in minimal damage but deteriorating with time into more extensive and irreversible lesions. [1]

In a previous write-up I outlined a few reasons against a dietary approach that emphasizes macronutrient intake, the IIFYM (if it fits your macros). Moreover, not restricting one or the other (fats or carbohydrates) may lead to competition between fuels if energy production is unmatched by energy utilization. Lipolysis would be minimized, while glucose toxicity and pathological conditions would arise.

Thoughts and comments below.


  1. Hue, L., & Taegtmeyer, H. (2009). The Randle cycle revisited: a new head for an old hat. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 297(3), E578-E591.
  1. Randle, P. J., Garland, P. B., Hales, C. N., & Newsholme, E. A. (1963). The glucose fatty-acid cycle its role in insulin sensitivity and the metabolic disturbances of diabetes mellitus. The Lancet, 281(7285), 785-789.
  1. Garland, P. B., Newsholme, E. A., & Randle, P. J. (1962). Effect of fatty acids, ketone bodies, diabetes and starvation on pyruvate metabolism in rat heart and diaphragm muscle.
  1. Hue, L., & Rider, M. H. (1987). Role of fructose 2, 6-bisphosphate in the control of glycolysis in mammalian tissues. Biochemical Journal, 245(2), 313.
  1. Depre, C., Rider, M. H., & Hue, L. (1998). Mechanisms of control of heart glycolysis. European Journal of Biochemistry, 258(2), 277-290.
  1. Gaesser, G. A., & Brooks, G. A. (1980). Glycogen repletion following continuous and intermittent exercise to exhaustion. Journal of Applied Physiology, 49(4), 722-728.
  1. Volek, J. S., Freidenreich, D. J., Saenz, C., Kunces, L. J., Creighton, B. C., Bartley, J. M., … & Lee, E. C. (2016). Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism, 65(3), 100-110.
  1. Hutber, C. A., Hardie, D. G., & Winder, W. W. (1997). Electrical stimulation inactivates muscle acetyl-CoA carboxylase and increases AMP-activated protein kinase. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 272(2), E262-E266.
  1. Kudo, N., Gillespie, J. G., Kung, L., Witters, L. A., Schulz, R., Clanachan, A. S., & Lopaschuk, G. D. (1996). Characterization of 5′ AMP-activated protein kinase activity in the heart and its role in inhibiting acetyl-CoA carboxylase during reperfusion following ischemia. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Lipids and Lipid Metabolism, 1301(1), 67-75.
  1. Depre, C., Ponchaut, S., Deprez, J., Maisin, L., & Hue, L. (1998). Cyclic AMP suppresses the inhibition of glycolysis by alternative oxidizable substrates in the heart. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 101(2), 390.
  1. McCormack, J. G., & Denton, R. M. (1984). Role of Ca2+ ions in the regulation of intramitochondrial metabolism in rat heart. Evidence from studies with isolated mitochondria that adrenaline activates the pyruvate dehydrogenase and 2-oxoglutarate dehydrogenase complexes by increasing the intramitochondrial concentration of Ca2+. Biochem. J, 218, 235-247.
  1. Goodwin, G. W., Taylor, C. S., & Taegtmeyer, H. (1998). Regulation of energy metabolism of the heart during acute increase in heart work. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 273(45), 29530-29539.
  1. Harmancey, R., Wilson, C. R., & Taegtmeyer, H. (2008). Adaptation and maladaptation of the heart in obesity. Hypertension, 52(2), 181-187.
  1. Morino, K., Petersen, K. F., & Shulman, G. I. (2006). Molecular mechanisms of insulin resistance in humans and their potential links with mitochondrial dysfunction. Diabetes, 55(Supplement 2), S9-S15.

Images: here

Get on The List
More on Persistent Fat Loss
Find out more about Ketone Power
More on T-(Rx)
More on Periodic Fasting

Related posts:



9 Responses to The Randle Cycle – How Fats and Carbs compete for Oxidation [Review]

  1. Twitchy Firefly says:

    Burning both types of fuel under stress: can this explain why one loses weight when undergoing a very stressful time? This happened to me last winter. Undergoing a relationship upset for a couple of months, I lost 15 pounds despite not being overweight to begin with and having been VLC for several years.

  2. Jeff Cyr says:

    Christi Vlad I want to personally thank you for this great article. I know the time and effort it took to research and find proper reference. A FANTASTIC JOB!

  3. Rob Coberly says:

    I appreciate the article. These substrates compete, and glucose will generally be oxidized when available, while during that state fatty acid oxidation is suppressed. Activating oxidation of both will tend to place too much reducing pressure on the ETC, perhaps reversing electron flow throug Complex I, and then ROS production may rise and exceed the hormetic levels resulting in depletion of antioxidant defenses and accumulation of oxidative damage.

    One suggestion re the illustrations. The two graphics featuring the ETC are labeled “mito” and “cyto” and the “cyto” side could be confusing. Protons are pumped from matrix into the intermembrane space, not cytoplasm. From Mitochondrial Energetics and Therapeutics (2010, Douglas Wallace et al.), “The energy that is released as the electrons flow down the ETC is used to pump protons out across the mitochondrial inner membrane through complexes I, III, and IV. This creates a proton electrochemical gradient…a capacitor that is acidic and positive in the intermembrane space and negative and alkaline on the matrix side. The potential energy stored in deltaP is used for multiple purposes: (a) to import proteins and Ca2+ into the mitochondrion, (b) to generate heat, and (c) to synthesize ATP within the mitochondrial matrix. The energy to convert ADP + Pi to ATP comes from the flow of protons through the ATP synthetase (complex V) back into the matrix.”

    Rob Coberly

  4. TPLV says:

    I read about Mitochondria metabolism, before I read beautiful articles from the late well recognized and respected Dr. John Dennis McGarry, PhD, SW Dallas.
    Here are the site that Dr. Daniel W. Foster wrote remembrance to the late Scientist.
    The 2 References are available as listed, key mind-opening articles.
    The 2nd reference : Banting lecture 2001 led me to “The TBadle Cycle Revisited…2009”.
    Dr. JD McGarry established the 2nd arm of the Randle cycle(which Sir Randle,- Randle PJ, Garland PB, Hales CN, Newsholme EA.- Sir. PJ et al established prescient “fatty acid syndrome” in T2DM , circa 60’s (1963). At the time, 63, the authors postulated that FA oxidation inhibit 90% Glucose oxidation via acetyl-Co-A(Pyruvate oxidation), 60% inhibition on glucolysis (via acetoacetate), 30% inhibition on glucose uptake(via citrate). Since the work circa 77, Dr. JD McGarry establish malonyl-CoA (generated via glucose/then pyruvate oxidation), then malonyl-CoA/ACC/CPT-1 is the cornerstone on the role of 2nd Randle cycle arm: glucose oxidation, vice versa, inhibits long chain Acyl-CoA oxidation. Ever since, 77, scientists resurrected The Randle cycle.
    (Excerpt The Randle cycle Revisited:
    “Long-term effects of glucose…” This article shed a lot of light, input into the metabolic derangement in MetSyn, T2DM, built a cornerstone role of the Mitochondria.s key player AMPK (Integration of AMPK and ACC in the glucose-fatty acid cycle.), The philosophy contained in that article from Drs. Louis Hue, Heinrich Taegtmeyer :”..The novelty of the glucose-fatty acid cycle was that it introduced a new dimension of control1 by adding a nutrient-mediated fine tuning on top of the more coarse hormonal control…”
    We owed our learning to update on those bright outstanding scientists above as well others.
    I recalled in that article:”The Randle cycle revisited: a new head for an old hat
    Louis Hue, Heinrich Taegtmeyer”, which I tried to remember lines by lines, slow speed inching lines by lines. We all knew that the inner mitochondria membrane is very tight, even to H+, which could only be pumped out(via Complex I, III, IV) from matrix into the intermembrane space of mitochondria, the space between inner mitochondrial membrane and outer mitochondria membrane. The outer mitochondria membrane, on the other hand, is quite permeable to solutes in the Cytosol, to the point that Cytosol and intermitochondial membrane space are equivalent in solute contents. Thus, the authors might abbreviated CYTO (from which we read as intermitochondrial membrane space side)/MITO (from which we read as matrix side.

    In other articles about Mitochondria, role of Uncoupling Protein 1, 2, and 3.
    The only agent that can flip flop through the inner mitochondrial membrane into the matrix, are the saturated -non esterified- FA in subjects with surplus of saturated FA (SFA) in the cytosol. Since those non-esterified SFA can not be oxidized by beta-oxidation, they will become grave danger to the survival of mitochondriae. Exercises, recreational type, upregulate UCP3 which will move SFA out of mitochondria matrix via inner mitochondria membrane. And, apparently, as I recallled, I read 4-5 years ago, this mechanism from UCP3 is not active in case of athletic professional nor elitic exercises.


  5. TPLV says:

    My apology,

    Above was the key link from Dr. Daniel W. Foster:

    John Denis McGarry, PhD

    Daniel W. Foster, MD

    Diabetes 2002 May; 51(5): 1651-1651.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *