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Michael Phelps (the famed Olympic swimmer and many-time gold medalist) is one of the most fit people in the world, and most people would look at him and say that he is extremely healthy. However, he eats (all!) of this in one day:

Breakfast: Three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise. Two cups of coffee. One five-egg omelet. One bowl of grits. Three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar. Three chocolate-chip pancakes.

Lunch: One pound of enriched pasta. Two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread. Energy drinks packing 1,000 calories.

Dinner: One pound of pasta. An entire pizza. More energy drinks.

That is about 12,000 calories. Obviously, that many calories, that much cholesterol, fat, and sugar would be bad for 99.99% of the world. But my question is, are lots of calories/cholesterol/fat/sugar/whatever bad only if you don't burn them off, or are they always bad? It's not uncommon for extreme athletes to eat a lot of calories--do the statistics show that they are more likely to get any types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or anything like that? Or is there something that makes them immune to the detrimental effects?

Is it the obvious answer, that they're only bad if you don't burn them off? If so, then does that apply to any person who can maintain the calories-in : calories-out ratio? Since I have always been skinny, can I eat as many eggs as I want and be confident that as long as I don't start gaining weight, the cholesterol is not bad for me? Or is there something else about athletes that protects them from the negative effects?

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Cholesterol isn't bad for you any way, quite the opposite. Scientists misinterpreted what the data a meant and thought that cholesterol was bad. They've since corrected that mistake but it will take a while longer for everyone else to catch up on that issue. –  Robin Ashe Aug 7 '12 at 4:24
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I'm serious, blaming cholesterol for atherosclerosis is like blaming firefighters for the charred remains of a burnt down house. High levels of LDL in the blood are indicative of a problem, but you don't get high levels of LDL from eating foods high in cholesterol. Cholesterol repairs damage to the arteries, not perfectly, but it's better than not repairing it at all. And your liver produces it anyway, so if you're doing/eating anything that leads to damage to your arteries, you'll get the high LDL in your blood either way. –  Robin Ashe Aug 7 '12 at 4:32
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Just to back up Robin Ashe on the Cholesterol point, my brother had hypertension and was put o a low cholesterol diet. His cholesterol level increased! I suspect that high cholesterol foods are indicative of other unhealthy lifestyle factors. –  rthsyjh Aug 7 '12 at 8:50
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I wouldn't worry too much about the cholesterol or fat intake. But to answer your question anyone that performs and practices at a high level will cause some type of damage to their body overtime, the nature of the beats. Push your body to extremes and it will push back. –  Wayne In Yak Aug 7 '12 at 16:37
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+1 million!! @RobinAshe you are so correct about the cholesterol. Sustained levels of insulin (mostly caused by high levels of digested glucose) is what scientists are seeing causes the inflammation in the first place which is what causes the liver to release the cholesterol!! –  Mike S Aug 7 '12 at 23:12

4 Answers 4

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.

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Thanks for the insightful answer. I felt like you were skirting on the edge of equivocating health and not being over weight (clearly, there are unhealthy skinny people), which makes it feel like you're not squarely answering the question about the health of fit people. But in reading through again, the answer is still full of good information and I appreciate it. –  brentonstrine Aug 8 '12 at 16:02
    
There are several health indicators such as blood pressure, blood lipid levels, LDL cholesterol levels, as well as body fat levels. Exercise alone has marked impact on most of these health indicators. If the body is burning all the energy it consumes (i.e. body fat percentage is not increasing), and all other health indicators are within acceptable parameters, they are healthy. –  Berin Loritsch Aug 8 '12 at 16:17
    
I would also include liver and kidney function. Eating this many calories might lead to stress on the liver, as several macronutrients need to be processed by the liver in order to be used for energy (eg fructose and protein). I'm not aware of any evidence that exercise dramatically improves liver efficiency. Similarly, metabolizing this many calories produces more waste products which must be excreted by the kidneys. –  RecursivelyIronic Dec 12 '12 at 16:37

IMO, there is no way that diet will not catch up with him, even if he burns the calories. While the eggs may be fine, all that processed, refined garbage like white bread, energy drinks, etc. and the excess saturated fat from fried food is unhealthy for anyone. It's ok to consume extra calories if you are not adding on pounds, but empty calories is always a bad idea. Eating things like lean meats, fish (that contains high omega fatty acids) and things like nuts, and avocados for extra fat are good. And you can eat as many fruits and vegetables as you want. Hydrogenated fats and homogenized milk are bad because they are artificially created and the fat ends up in places it doesn't belong in our body.

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saturated fat IS hydrogenated fat - any current science behind your assertion that saturated fat is unhealthy? or maybe you just meant trans fats? I'm pretty sure homogenized milk does not belong lumped with those, and that homogenization does not affect where your body stores fat (it all gets homogenized in your stomach anyway) –  J. Winchester Aug 8 '12 at 3:50
    
The problem with that simplistic approach is that there is simply no way to consume enough calories eating all the fruits and veggies you can choke down. And I echo J Winchester, any sources for these claims on the milk? –  JohnP Aug 8 '12 at 4:43

I would suspect that if you actually broke down his entire diet for a day, you would find that the nutrient and composition ratios are not that different than many athletes that do not have his workload, and that the major difference is just the sheer amount. I'd guess that his ratio is probably somewhere in the 60/20/20 or similar range, and for the most part is also planned out by a nutritionist or at least had nutritional consultation somewhere along the way.

Is this unhealthy? To some extent, it's unknown. I would tend to lean on the side of it not being unhealthy, as athletes of Olympic/World caliber have been eating high calorie density foods and amounts for decades to sustain heavy workout loads, and as a cohort, have exhibited no greater tendencies to overeating diseases than any other subsection of the population.

Where it will be a factor is if he continues to eat in this fashion after he stops working out quite so much. If he does that, then yes, he will more than likely start to suffer obesity related diseases after the usual time. If he controls his diet and adapts to eating less, then I don't see it being a problem.

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Sadly, we're not going to know much about the Phelp's generation for decades to come. There is good data for sumo wrestlers going back over 60 years, but it's clouded by the fact that smoking and drinking were pretty common even into the eighties. Of course, no professional/elite athlete is in it for their health. As for sumo wrestlers, the outlook is not good even for those who maintained 10-15% bodyfat while putting on a 100 pounds in four years. Their lifespan was shortened even if they carefully returned to normal size after retiring. Phelps and the others might be in danger because of the stress of a lifestyle that can burn off 10,000 calories. I think the diet of Olympic athletes can't be separated from the other extremes of their life so we need to be very careful about learning from them. I could have said that better but pole vaulting is coming on.

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Perhaps when television is not a draw you could edit and improve your answer? –  JohnP Aug 7 '12 at 16:21
    
@medmal don't worry I understand - I LOVE the olympics. –  Mike S Aug 7 '12 at 23:20
    
this answer would be spot on if you add a discussion of chronic stress, cortisol and inflammation that go with burning 12k calories/day. –  J. Winchester Aug 8 '12 at 3:52

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