The first thing that separates extreme athletes from most of the rest of us is the amount of energy they require. It's true that when you need to consume 12,000 Calories to keep up with your training, you simply can't eat clean. It's easy to make up all the protein the body needs within that amount of Calories, so these athletes can eat pretty much whatever they want and still be lean and healthy.
There are a few things that we need to realize about food that may not be immediately obvious:
- Food is the raw material your body uses to convert to energy and nutrients necessary to repair itself and function properly.
- Unless the body is not functioning properly, what is in food does not directly go into your blood stream. The body processes it in the kidneys, liver, and intestines to break it down into the parts required.
- The more demands placed on your body, the more need for raw energy which means carbs and fats will dwarf the need for protein. This is in stark contrast to someone who is already overweight and needing to lose fat.
- Blood cholesterol levels and other health indicators are controlled by hormones in response to the needs in your body.
- The more your blood freely circulates, the less risk of plaque buildup, arterial damage, and other health problems. It also means your blood pressure is within a proper range.
- Food (and sleep) are the major tools of recovery. With the raw materials to rebuild broken down muscles in abundance, the body can repair itself quite rapidly once it is trained to do so.
If you were to take Michael Phelps and keep feeding him that diet while not allowing him to train, he would become as big as a house. As long as he trains as hard as he does, he can eat like he does. Extreme athletes like Phelps also work with coaches and get regular physicals to ensure they can keep working at optimum performance.
To more squarely address the health of these athletes, you need to look at your health indicators. These include (but are not limited to):
- Resting heart rate
- VO2 Max
- Blood pressure
- Blood lipid levels
- Blood LDL cholesterol levels
- Blood sugar levels
- Body fat percentage
Exercise alone has a marked impact on almost all of those factors. Essentially the body learns to use all of the food efficiently, pushing the energy where it is needed. The conditioning work involved in exercising for hours every day alone will address the first three indicators by itself. Getting body fat levels within a healthy range (not too low or high) addresses the remainder of the issues. The super athletes eating 12,000 Calories a day typically have body fat well within a healthy range.
It is important to have regular physicals and assessments to ensure everything remains in a healthy range. The athletes who can achieve the level we are talking about are not left to themselves. Between their coaches, team physicians, etc. every aspect of their health is being monitored regularly. This includes joint health and monitoring whether the athlete is over training or not. This is a key point. By regularly monitoring the health indicators, the coaches can take corrective action before it becomes a problem. Many times, when health indicators go south, it is because the athlete is doing too much and they have to back off for a little while. All these adjustments are made by people who know their stuff.