A common (and correct) view in fitness is that diet and nutrition account for the majority of the results in your fitness efforts. Most trainers would agree that if average Joe or Jane wants results (weight loss, fat loss, muscle gains, etc.), then a good diet will account for 80%+ of the effort, with the other 20% being exercise.
You have probably heard/seen this phrase countless times:
You will never out train a bad diet.
The logic is simple; given the amount of calories you burn during the time you spend exercising compared with the amount of calories you consume (assuming that you don’t have a proper, balanced diet), you will never be able to make progress. This assumes that you can only exercise the amount a fully employed and obligated adult has time to workout, and in a good case, that may only be 30 to 60 minutes a day.
Who CAN Out Train a Bad Diet?
The fact is that some people can and do exercise for much longer than that. Soldiers, wild land firefighters (also known as Hotshots), Olympians, and professional and collegiate athletes routinely exceed the “regular” allotment of exercise on a daily basis. They MUST consume more than the allotted 2,000-whatever calories per day, or they wouldn’t perform at the level they must to succeed/survive.
Let’s look at the top calorie-consuming professions and sports (I would say “calorie-burning” but that whole stat is kind of BS considering how variable it is to each individual and activity):
It’s a widely-known tidbit that swimmer Michael Phelps consumed over 10,000 to 12,000 calories per day during the Olympics. This number sounds like a lot, but it’s not that unusual for competitive swimmers according to sports dietician Caroline Mandel. I can personally attest to living off peanut-butter bagel sandwiches and donuts as a 150-pound teenager while swimming in high school (being young is technically cheating, but it was still a horrible calorie-crazy diet).
It’s recommended that Hotshot firefighters consume up to 6,000 calories while working fires. Let’s take Hotshots, a group that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, as an example. These guys and gals get dropped into the wild, create trails (I say “create trails” instead of “hike” because they literally cut a path through the wilderness to get where they need to go), carrying over 40 pounds of gear just to cut line (this is a process of cutting through trees, bushes, and whatever else may burn for a suitable width, essentially creating a barrier to stop a wild fire from progressing), just to hike back out and do the same process again the next day if necessary! This may seem like an excessive amount, but it is completely necessary to keep them fueled up while they fight the good fight against Mother Nature (don’t worry, it’s only Mother Nature 10% of the time, the other 90% of wildfires are caused by humans).
While the jobs and daily tasks of soldiers vary greatly, MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat) are a mainstay in the field. Each one has about 1,300 calories, about 3,600 calories for a day. Not that bad, except when you consider that the recommended diet according to Army Nutritional Standards is 4,600 calories for soldiers doing “exceptionally-heavy activity.” I remember talking to a Marine who was a month out from his second deployment to Iraq; I asked him about his diet and he told me that his superiors recommended that he eat as much as humanly possible leading up to the date. The reason was simple, no matter how much he ate or weight he gained, it was all going to be lost in the field.
If They Can Eat This Much, Can You?
While 10,000 calories for the average person would be hard to out train, but not all people are “average;” some people need more because they do more. Even so, being healthy is about more than a number of calories; being healthy requires a proper diet, no matter what number you want to assign to it.
The question isn’t whether or not you can out train a bad diet, it’s whether you can out live a bad diet (and you can’t).
I’m going to share something with you without getting into specifics; I know some Hotshots, soldiers, and professional athletes that don’t just exceed a “proper” amount of calories per day, they flat-out don’t eat or live healthy AT ALL. The fact that they do or don’t eat too many calories doesn’t matter; health is about NUTRITION, not some arbitrary number related to energy consumption.
As always, I’ll be the first to admit that nutrition isn’t my strong suit (that’s why I cheat with holistic supplements!). I am not a firefighter, solider, or professional athlete; I’m just a humble fitness professional who works out as much as I can to maintain the performance level I need for my life (my definition of “performance” relates more to keeping up with my two young sons than anything else).
What I do know is that I don’t have the time or energy for the balanced diet and nutritional requirements that my less-than-extreme lifestyle entails. That is why diet and nutrition is so important; it’s not just about being able to out train a bad diet, it’s about being able to out live it.
Right now, the average life expectancy in the USA is approximately 79 years old, that means that at my current age of 31, I have 48 years to go (nearly a half of a century!). I can’t afford to have my body be anything less than functional for that time frame (and who knows how long modern technology may increase my lifespan beyond that).
Luckily, nutrition can be relatively simple, especially when you know capable people like my coworker Brenda Gregory. She created the guidelines for Onnit Academy Gym, which includes healthy advice like the following. Use this, and get on the right track to a good diet.
What You Should Be Eating on a Typical Day
- Complex carbohydrate if need something sweet
- Lean protein
- Complex carbohydrate, only if needed!
- Lean protein 4-5 days per week
- Red meat 2-3 days per week
- Vegetables (at least one serving from the cruciferous family)
- Add onion and garlic whenever possible
- Nuts/seeds/nut butters