Can You Out-Train a Bad Diet?

Bad Diet

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by Rod Navajas

The answer is: yes. I will explain. 

How would you picture the physique of a person consuming this a day:

  • 5 egg omelette
  • 3 chocolate chip pancakes 
  • 1kg of pasta
  • 1 entire pizza
  • Tons of energy drink
  • And more…

If you imagined someone carrying excessive amount of body weight and being unable to walk around the block before calling triple 000, you are wrong. In fact, we are talking about an extreme lean subject with superhuman capacity to endure high levels of intense exercise for prolonged periods of time. 

But before you head to an adventure exploring what’s inside every different food package you can find in your pantry, we are talking about the diet of a multi winner Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest swimmer of all time. This is the diet he was following at the Beijing Olympic games in 2008. During this time, he was training 5 hours or swimming 80km a day. Most of us will get frustrated if we need to climb a flight of stairs in a shopping mall if the escalators are not working. The amount, intensity and frequency of how much you move your body, is what makes it all possible.   

Fig 1. Michael Phelps exhibiting his 28 Olympic medals

Most of us are familiar with the concept of calories. Calorie is the currency your body utilizes to create the energy that your muscles require to produce movement. Therefore, the more movement production is required, the more consumption of greater amounts of calories is necessary. 

But how much energy is required to run 5 kilometers? On average, between 300 to 400 calories. Contrast that to the amount of calories required to complete an Iron Man event: between 8,500 to 10,000 calories. To keep up with his training, Michael Phelps was consuming 12,000 calories a day. 

Let’s break down our energy expenditure components. Basically, as an adult, we spend energy to move, digest and to keep all the body systems working. Of course, it’s much easier to affect how much energy we require by affecting how much we move than to influence how much energy your immune system requires which is beyond our voluntary control. Fortunately, how much energy we require to move, is within our control. 

Great! But you may say that you are neither an Olympic swimmer nor an Iron Man athlete to afford consuming the amount of calories those athletes do without packing a bunch of unwanted body weight and jumping 4 sizes up in your wardrobe selection. Very understandable. I have some good news for you though! It’s not only the amount of energy you require during exercise that matters. In fact, in some cases, the amount of energy required to walk from work to the bus stop, or from home to the shops, can influence the total amount of energy spent at the end of the day more than what a training session do. This is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Check photo below showing the contribution in percentage of the components that make up the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).  

Fig 2. Components of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). BMR = basal metabolic rate; NEAT = non-exercise activity thermogenesis; TEF = thermic effect of food; EAT = exercise activity thermogenesis; REE = resting energy expenditure; NREE = non-resting energy expenditure. Adapted from Maclean et al., 2011.


If you are satisfied with your body composition, the short answer is yes. Usually this is not the case as we are constantly trying to improve our body composition. But there is a caveat, this a very delicate process and guessing is usually not the best alternative. If you want to eat more, you will need to proportionally move more. If the increase of energy intake surpasses the increase of energy expenditure, you will end up packing some extra KG’s. 

Complicated? Not so much. You simply need to measure how much you move and then gradually increase your food consumption until there’s a negative effect on body composition. The important point to understand is that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. The more control you have over the voluntary components that make up energy balance, the better. 

A fitness tracker can be a very good addition to your health gadgets. Tracking how many steps you take a day is the most commonly unit of measurement used to track NEAT. It’s important to note that the more intensive your workouts are, the greater the energy demand. Aiming to train safely, but intensively, should always be the target. 


From a health perspective, quantity is not the only factor that matters. Calories are not created equal. Different foods will enhance or suppress different pathways in your body. Calories found in French fries will be accompanied by food messengers that will elicit a different physiological response than if the same amount of calories were consumed by eating strawberries. 

We should always be concerned about not only quantity, but quality, specially if we want to reach peak levels of physique and health combined. In fact, poor diets are considered to be a major burden of disease worldwide. Even you have a normal physique, a bad diet can still wreak havoc in the body.

“According to TheLancet global burden of disease reports, poor diet now generates more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined. Up to 40% of those with a normal body mass index will harbour metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, which include hypertension, dyslipidaemia, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease.”

To conclude: Move vigorously, eat mindfully. 


Kimber, N. E., Ross, J. J., Mason, S. L., & Speedy, D. B. (2002). Energy balance during an ironman triathlon in male and female triathletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism12(1), 47-62.

Malhotra, A., Noakes, T., & Phinney, S. (2015). It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. British journal of sports medicine49(15), 967-968.

Löffler, M. C., Betz, M. J., Blondin, D. P., Augustin, R., Sharma, A. K., Tseng, Y. H., … & Neubauer, H. (2021). Challenges in tackling energy expenditure as obesity therapy-from preclinical models to clinical application. Molecular Metabolism, 101237.

Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition11(1), 1-7.

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