When Bob Harper, famous for his long-standing work on The Biggest Loser and widely regarded as amongst the most successful physical trainers in the world, suffered a sudden heart attack last year, many were taken aback. How could, the collective questioning posited, a specimen of such peak fitness experience a near-fatal trauma traditionally linked to obesity and years of unhealthy eating? After all, Mr. Harper was in the kind of physical shape that lends itself to magazine spreads, modeling photoshoots and, of course, television contracts. Adding irony to the already bewildering state-of-affairs was the fact that his collapse into cardiac arrest occurred in the gym, during a workout – the very environment conventionally conceptualized as the starting point for heart attack prevention. All of this invites an uncomfortable set of questions: is our ready conflation of physical fitness with physical health fundamentally misguided, founded on a core misunderstanding of how our bodies operate? Indeed, is it possible to, as in Mr. Harper’s case, meet every conceivable criterion for elite fitness ability while still combating the potentiality of deleterious health conditions?
Recent research out of the Sports Performance Research Institute of New Zealand (SPRINZ), a component of the larger Auckland University of Technology, addresses this very issue. In their publication for the Journal of Sports Medicine, aptly entitled “Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy?”, Drs. Philip Maffetone and Paul Laursen begin by distinguishing between the entirely separate paradigms that define fitness versus health. According to their findings, the two concepts necessitate disparate categorization, with the former – i.e. fitness – corresponding to the ability to perform specific exercise tasks and the latter characterizing an individual’s overall physical well-being. Health, in other words, serves as a measure of the degree to which the body’s physiological systems enjoy harmonic congruity, while fitness bears a more operational definition judged by specific performance metrics. On this basis, the researchers review the expanse of current evidence explaining why many athletes and related professionals, despite maintaining exceptional levels of fitness prowess, do not meet the criteria for good health – and, like Mr. Bob Harper – suffer the consequences thereafter.
Chief amongst the factors underlying this physiological disparity is diet: which is to say that the types of foods consumed regularly by athletic performers and fitness specialists are complicit in subverting their overall health and well-being. To begin with, modern athletes mistakenly adhere to a dietary doctrine that emphasizes carbohydrates and the use of energy-boosting supplements, resulting in the excess intake of refined, processed foods generally high in glycemic index and/or saturated with artificial additives, established culprits of compromised health. Indeed, conducted by University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) has linked processed consumables, ranging from meal-replacement protein bars to heavily-caffeinated energy drinks, to both impaired fat oxidation rates as well as elevated inflammation and bodily pain. Compounded over time, the results of a diet unevenly reliant on bursts of processed carbohydrates inevitably include hyperinsulinemia and chronic inflammation. Most fitness enthusiasts do not, however, stop just quite there. Over-refined performance products are often combined with high protein/high fat consumption patterns for supposed recovery and rest, exacerbating health issues and increasing the long-term risk for other conditions. As Drs. E. Angela Murphy and Kandy Velasquez from the University of South Carolina explain in their recent review of this dietary phenomenon, high fat/protein diets not only produce drastic increases in individual risk for heart disease by promoting atherosclerosis, but also enact severe alterations to the body’s natural digestive microbiome, heightening the chance of developing chronic diseases including, though not limited, to intestinal inflammation.
Adding insult to injury, findings further suggest that fitness-focused diets not only function against markers of good health in the long-run, but also fail to actually provide the performance benefits their practitioners expect. Researchers at South Africa’s University of Cape Town recently demonstrated that a high protein/high fat intake structure actually fails in to accomplish its intended purpose of muscular recovery – athletes habituated to such eating styles regularly report less efficient rates of glucose breakdown during exercise compared to counterparts who follow more macronutritionally balanced diets. Likewise, professional cyclists practicing HP/HF diets display lower total rates of glucose production during both resting and active states, with pre-competition ‘carb-loading’ proving consistently ineffectual in compensating for natively reduced carbohydrate availability during performative exercise tasks. Combined with the increased risks for inflammatory and cardiovascular ailments over the long term, it suffices to claim that the diet plans generally associated with elite fitness and athletics are in fact simultaneously ineffective and insalubrious.
As Maffetone and Laursen, among others, conclusively provide, mere physical fitness does not confer health, and, assuming modern athletic diet plans are adhered to, is likely to actually worsen overall well-being and raise the possibility of suffering injurious conditions. Indeed, given that the majority of this counterintuitive disparity between fitness and health appears to stems from misguided dietary regimens themselves, it is unsurprising that, in the aftermath of trainer Bob Harper’s heart attack, physicians prescribed a regimen comprised of unprocessed, unrefined foods, and one that emphasized organic vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas and natural oils; animal protein – i.e. meat altogether – and denser fats were eliminated entirely. Most notably, substantial improvements were observed across the traditional gamut of health makers in a matter of mere weeks, and, fortunately for both his health and fitness, it appears that Mr. Harper intends to follow through with the revitalizing dietary plan for the foreseeable future.