Spending hours at the gym to 'burn off' what we consume seems like a favorable option for some people. If one is able to eat whatever they truly want, then working extra hard to burn off those calories at the gym is a choice that many are willing to take. Does consuming a less-than-ideal diet have much effect on our health if we push ourselves through increased activity? This is a debate that continues to be discussed to this day: can you really out-train a poor diet?
Lack of nutrients stemming from a poor diet can lead to increased risk of diseases and early mortality, which is independent of exercise.
Exercise alone is unable to provide us with essential nutrients that we can only get from our diet.
Consistently eating ultra-processed foods can cause workouts to suffer since our bodies are not being fueled properly to support our workouts.
Complementing a well-rounded, balanced diet with a regular exercise routine is favorable.
Understanding a poor diet
The definition of a 'poor diet' is quite subjective and varies greatly on who you ask. Although there are many different types of diets out there (i.e., keto, vegan, Mediterranean), most research continues to have a general consensus on what would be defined as an overall healthy diet.
In general, a healthy diet is one that places an emphasis on plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and lean animal products. Research also shows that high-sugar foods and ultra-processed foods may be less ideal for our health. What may be 'healthy' for one person may be different from another, as genetic and lifestyle factors play an immense role in metabolism and well-being.
For consistency purposes, a poor diet, in this case, would be one that is very calorically-dense with low nutrient value.
Research shows a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, type II diabetes, and obesity with a diet promoting unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fish. The research is conflicted on red meat intake, but overall shows that lean animal proteins and less-processed meats are best. Due to the lack of nutrients entering the body, exercise will not be able to counteract this risk to the full extent.
The role of exercise
Exercise is absolutely essential for overall health and well-being. It plays a role in cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and improved mental state. Various factors, such as duration and intensity of the workouts and individual metabolism, are important in determining whether exercise can counteract a poor diet. However, exercise alone has limitations.
Consuming calorically dense foods is way easier to do than burning those same calories. For example, a can of soda can be drunk in seconds to minutes, but to burn those same calories off would take several minutes to even hours. Overall, it takes way more time to burn off these calories than it does to consume them. It may be difficult to 'keep up' with a poor diet from a calorie standpoint.
Exercise alone can not provide the body with the nutrients that it needs. Exercise does not provide us with many important nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber. Many nutrients we can only get from our diet can have an impact on our ability to perform and recover not only in our workouts but also in everyday life.
Diet quality and its impact on exercise
Counteracting a poor diet with exercise may sound intriguing in theory. However, proper nutrition is extremely beneficial to maximize workouts and recovery. For example, a diet lacking enough protein may limit the ability of the individual to build muscle. Protein is important for repairing and building muscle, and without proper amounts, it may be challenging to achieve that through exercise alone.
Rather than choosing either nutrition or exercise to prioritize, both should be considered. A diet that consists of mostly whole, nutritious foods and limits processed foods, along with a regular exercise routine, is suitable for long-term health. Eating well can improve exercise performance and help with recovery. Exercise may not be as effective while consuming a poor diet as proper nutrients and fuel sources are lacking. Therefore, instead of exercise offsetting a poor diet, we should look at it as an added complementary benefit to an overall healthy diet.
- Nutrients. The Role of Diet, Alcohol, BMI, and Physical Activity in Cancer Mortality: Summary Findings of the EPIC Study.
- American Family Physician. Diet for Health: Goals and Guidelines.
- British Nutrition Foundation. Nutrition for sports and exercise.
- Nutrients. Defining a health diet: evidence for the role of contemporary diet patterns in health and disease.