A long-held belief in the fitness world is that nutrition equates to 80% of the obtained results; that no amount of physical exercise can offset a poor diet, in terms of how someone’s body looks.
But is this notion true?
The answer is simple enough: “You can eat processed, nutrient-void, calorically-dense foods and maintain a lean, muscular physique that looks healthy and strong, but in the long term this inflammatory way of eating will predispose you to various potential chronic health conditions, such as metabolic or hormonal irregularities, that will eventually degrade your physical appearance.”
The side-effects of a “bad diet”, meaning a diet that is calorically dense and full of highly-processed foods may sometimes manifest much later in life.
Many people have a very high tolerance for damaging foods, either because of their genetics or their lifestyle.
Habits such as daily exercise, quality sleep, adequate hydration, mindfulness, spending time in nature, close human relationships, and stress management can attenuate the oxidative and metabolic damage created by eating an unhealthy diet.
Professional Athletes Consume Tons of Junk Food
The concept of eating very poorly but looking fit and healthy can be witnessed in professional athletes of various sports.
World-class sportsmen are notorious fast-food eaters, however, their abnormally high daily levels of physical activity allow them to get away with it.
A good example is U.S.A’s Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps and his daily 8,000-10,000 kcals dietary regime.
During peak season, Mr. Phelps’ nutrition plan included thousands of grams of insulin-promoting simple sugars, complex carbohydrates, saturated fats, and even the infamous trans-fats (partially-hydrogenated oils).
Trans fats are well-known to raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) and lower HDL (the good cholesterol), increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
However, in the case of the U.S.A’s Olympian swimmer, his super heavy, daily training load allowed him to afford extraordinarily high energy intakes, which otherwise in a healthy person would cause severe energy toxicity.
Mr. Phelps didn’t turn into a whale but rather a dolphin that managed to win 28 medals between 2004 to 2016.
A diet so rich in processed foods, sugar and fat requires an enormous daily energy expenditure, which may only be achieved through long, daily workouts.
Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that it’s quite achievable to stay lean and muscular while ingesting thousands of calories per day.
As previously mentioned, the problem with this style of eating lies in the fact that it is unhealthy and disease-promoting in the long-term, even if the individual engages in rigorous daily exercise.
Concerning body composition, which greatly dictates how healthy and fit someone looks, the determining factor is always the caloric equilibrium (calories in vs calories out).
As a rule of thumb, a daily caloric surplus will inevitably lead to weight gain, with the opposite being true for a caloric deficit.
This is 99% the case.
If very poor eating habits sustain for years and decades in a row, chronic inflammatory conditions may eventually manifest, including metabolic diseases.
If this happens- if someone’s metabolic processes are impaired in any way, that could mean that this person may not be able to efficiently convert ingested macronutrients into energy.
As a consequence, this person will have weight management troubles, even without being on a caloric surplus.
Considering that most people encompass a decent amount of unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods in their diet, an occasional “cheat” will not be a problem.
It is however something the average person or athlete should have in the back of his mind; that the manifestation of overt disease caused by the wrong diet sometimes takes many, many years to occur.
Another thing to take into consideration is the frequency of junk food consumption.
Someone may eat “very bad” for one or two days with almost zero – if any- negative repercussions.
But if this theme gets repeated for many days in a row, negative consequences will start to rise.
As will all things in life, moderation is key.
If someone’s metabolic health is impaired in any way, that could mean that this person may not be able to efficiently convert ingested macronutrients into energy.
Every Person Has a Unique Metabolism or “Metabolic Type”
Metabolism, which refers to all the biochemical processes taken place inside our body is a broad, general term .
Many folks mistake metabolism for just how many calories you burn each day.
How calories you burn each day, a.k.a. your daily expenditure is a part of your metabolism, and simply refers to how your cells are utilizing the energy they get from the foods you eat.
Your daily or total energy expenditure is the summary of two things:
1) Your resting or basic metabolic rate (BMR), which refers to how many calories your body burns while at complete rest.
2) Your daily activities, like walking, doing household chores, or exercising.
Daily energy expenditure is a multifactorial parameter, that can be affected by:
- Cardiovascular training (cardio workouts elevate BMR for a short period of time )
- Strength training (resistance training increases BMR for many hours post-workout )
- Caloric consumption (extreme dieting reduces daily expenditure since food and especially protein has a very high thermic effect [4, )
- Fasting (short-term fasting increases BMR, long-term fasting puts you in “starvation mode” downregulating your metabolic rate [6, 7]
- Environmental temperature (increased ambient temperature increases energy expenditure )
- Age (BMR decreases by 1% to 2% per decade )
- Body composition (more muscle = more energetic costs = increased BMR )
- Endocrine function (hypothyroidism or low thyroid output is detrimental to your BMR [11})
- Sleep quality (sleep restriction decreases morning BMR in healthy adults )
- Stress levels (acute stress increases BMR to fuel physical activity, such as running, while chronic stress impairs metabolic health and BMR )
A slow metabolic rate can make weight loss a challenge and is often the result of an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped, endocrine gland located in the neck, that regulates cell metabolism, famously known as the “thermostat” of the body .
Many obese individuals often suffer from undiagnosed hypothyroidism, which refers to the thyroid’s inability to produce adequate thyroid hormones to meet the body’s needs.
The active thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3) has been found to stimulate mitochondrial function, resulting in increased cellular oxidation rates in people suffering from hypothyroidism .
However, not all obese people suffer from a slow metabolism.
A few studies showcase that some overweight individuals have a higher resting and total metabolic rate, compared to normal-weight people .
It has also been found that many obese individuals display higher than normal concentrations of TSH and T3 in their blood .
This may probably be attributed to their body’s attempts to compensate for their increased body mass by producing more thyroid hormones.
In other instances, we also see euthyroid people (people with normal thyroid function) eating home-cooked, healthy meals but ending up getting fat, simply because they exceed their total daily energy expenditure.
It is very clear that metabolism is a highly individualized thing, and science is still not able to understand why.
Seemingly, some people oxidize their macronutrients at a fast, others at a medium and others at a slow pace.
Besides, the types of macronutrients as well as their ratios also play a huge role in determining body composition.
This is exactly the concept of metabolic type-specific nutrition, which supports the notion that everyone should eat according to his/her metabolic type.
That’s why specific diets work for specific people, while causing all sorts of problems to others.
And the differences concerning people’s metabolic style of function or metabolic type is why there is so much conflict around the “perfect” human diet.
Brown Adipose Tissue: A Possible Determinant of Body Composition
There are 2 main types of adipose tissue in the human body: white and brown .
The white adipose tissue is located primarily beneath the skin and throughout the body, and is the fat we can grab with our hands.
It is found as insulation to various organs, composing about 20% of body weight in men and 25% in women.
It mainly serves as an energy storage depot and is neither thermogenic nor highly vascularized.
As you may already know, too much white adipose tissue can be unhealthy and visually unappealing.
Brown adipose tissue on the other hand is a dark-colored adipose tissue, mainly found in the upper chest, between the shoulder blades and around the kidneys and neck.
It is thermogenic, highly-vascularized (high capillary density), and rich in mitochondria and iron (hence its brown color).
It is observed at high levels in newborns and hibernating mammals (i.e., bears, chipmunks).
Scientists consider it to be a calorie-burning type of fat tissue because it can convert fat from food into heat, rather than body fat (thermogenic effect) .
Until recently, brown adipose tissue was thought to be biologically active only in newborns, but newer studies indicate that it also plays a role in adult humans .
The bad thing is it decreases with age .
Its mitochondria contain a unique protein-transporter, called uncoupling protein (UCP).
This type of protein uses fatty acids to facilitate the transport of hydrogen ions (H+) across the inner mitochondrial membrane, producing heat (thermogenesis) instead of ATP .
Brown fat tissue can be stimulated through a process called “cold thermogenesis” .
Cold thermogenesis is the production of heat by the body in order to remain warm and retain its homeostasis .
It happens during exposure to cold environments, like when sitting in an ice-bath or taking a cold shower.
Cold thermogenesis increases metabolic rate by making brown-adipocytes to produce heat, through mobilizing and breaking down pre-existing body fat.
There is a theory stating that a big group of people who do not seem to gain fat despite eating unhealthy, calorically-dense foods, may carry higher than normal levels of brown adipose tissue in their body.
Its activation substantially increases their metabolic rate, helping them to burn more calories than a normal person .
In general, many details are missing about the full-properties of this type of tissue, but fortunately lots of research is currently taking place.
If science manages to master the conversion mechanism of white adipose tissue to brown, that could lead to innovative and effective treatments of obesity and other metabolic diseases .
By taking a cold shower or sitting in an ice bath you can stimulate a process called “cold thermogenesis”, which carries fat-burning and anti-inflammatory benefits.
What About the Health Biomarkers of People Who Eat Unhealthily?
In recent years, scientists have been writing about a class of people called “Fat but fit” .
As the name implies, such individuals have higher than normal body fat levels but show no abnormalities in their clinical or laboratory values.
These people are rarely obese, but carry enough extra fat to be considered overweight.
They exhibit zero abdominal separation and have what we call “a beer belly”.
However, all their biomarkers including blood pressure, heart function, liver, and everything else, are normal and often perfect.
How do these fat people remain healthy?
The answer is that they work out- a lot.
They may not be lean and ripped, but their daily lives and training routines are very intense and laborious.
What keeps them from having a six-pack is that they constantly over-consume carbohydrates and fat.
This keeps their body fat elevated, but does not cause the usual, corresponding negative side effects, such as dyslipidemia, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides .
What’s interesting is that they also display no increased blood glucose, blood pressure and insulin levels, all of which are predictors of type II diabetes (except blood pressure).
Due to the lack of laboratory values indicating a pathological condition, many researchers and physicians have argued that these people are healthier and more resilient than normal-weight individuals [30, 31].
How to Prevent Fat Gain If You Overindulge
The key to balancing the negative side effects of overeating is engaging in high-intensity exercises, such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training).
HIIT has been found to upregulate mitochondrial activity and increase resting metabolic rate (RMR) .
This allows the body to utilize excess calories more efficiently, without storing them as unwanted body fat.
Body fat creation (lipogenesis) occurs about 4-8 hours after a meal, since then it’s when the food has been broken down and its nutrients begin to get absorbed in the small intestine.
Combining HIIT along with caloric restriction will completely counteract the effects of your previous feast or even lead to minor weight loss.
Indeed, that concept is well-practiced in a “sport” where body composition is the determining winning factor, known as bodybuilding, and it is called a “cheat day”.
Fitness trainers smartly implement cheat days as a tool to boost their clients’ metabolic function during periods of contest preparation and severe caloric restriction.
This concept is utilized simply because the body will not indefinitely keep losing weight if it stays on a caloric deficit.
It has powerful counteracting control mechanisms that will push it into “starvation mode” to prevent death from famine.
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About George Kelly
George Kelly M.Sc. is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist that specializes in chronic and autoimmune conditions. He is the CEO and lead author of Metabolic Body.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Metabolic Body nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.