Does it really matter if a diet’s high in sugar as long as you hit the gym enough? It turns out the answer is yes. The fuel you’re putting in the machine really does make a difference. Think of your body like a car. If you’re keeping it in the garage and barely taking it around the block every few weeks, it might not make a huge difference what maintenance and gas you implement—though even this rarely-used vehicle will break down more often than it should. However, you certainly wouldn’t want to take such a car drag racing. If you’re planning to “outexercise” your diet, what fuel will you be using for such an undertaking?

No bad habit can be outexercised, whether it’s a junk food diet, smoking, or drinking to excess. It matters what you put into your body. Technically, you may be able to reduce fat cell size on a low-calorie, low-nutrient diet for a short amount of time. After all, there is some truth to calories in, calories out. However, your body is running on empty and is also gobbling up muscle along the way. That’s why you’ll notice your skin has gone downhill, your hair might thin, your nails are brittle, and eventually, you won’t have the stamina or strength to continue any kind of decent exercise program. Your body will do what it can to keep you going, but there will be a breaking point. Nutrition is what keeps that point from at arriving.

The type of calories matters just as much—if not more—than the amount. It’s why bodybuilders immediately consume a large amount of high-quality protein after a lifting regimen. Your muscles require protein in order to recover from any type of damage, whether it’s powerlifting or simply over-extending yourself in activities of daily living. Your body needs the right fuel, in the right amounts, throughout the day.

Exercise is a requirement for a healthy life, but it becomes null and void if you try it consistently on a poor diet. A diet high in chemicals without a good amount of the nutrition your body needs is the lowest quality fuel you can offer it. Your body will take what it can get, then look to other resources—like your muscles—for the rest. The full results of this type of diet may not be “obvious” for many years. However, it’s likely that if you see a doctor, a battery of test results will reveal the truth.

Here’s what happens if you adopt a bad diet and attempt to undo it with exercise:

  • Your body runs on fumes. You won’t be as strong or as fast as you usually are. This results in fatigue throughout the day, crankiness, lightheadedness, and more signals that something’s wrong. Eventually, this can result in early onset sarcopenia (muscle loss), an increase in fractures since the bones will become more porous, and even heart failure.
  • Such an approach to weight control can be an early sign of an eating disorder. Restriction (anorexia) and exercise-induced bulimia are both very serious mental disorders. In fact, eating disorders are the deadliest, least diagnosed, and most under-insured of any mental health disorder.
  • You’ll notice signs of poor nutrition in your skin, hair, and nails. From hail loss to dry, brittle hair and nails as well as acne outbreaks, your body draws from the “least important” resources first. It’s more important that your body uses what little nutrition you give it to keep your interior organs functioning rather than making sure your appearance looks good.
  • You won’t have the energy to do much. Not only will your gym performance be poor, but you’ll also notice that you’re cranky, forgetful, or sluggish in your daily tasks. Some people try to make up for this by sneaking in naps, but that’s a catch-22. When you’re starving your body of nutrients, your brain goes into overdrive to make sure you don’t starve. It’s why those with eating disorders almost always have insomnia. Your brain will force your body and mind to stay awake in case food happens by, even though you’re choosing not to eat it. Insomnia leads to worsening conditions.
  • You won’t get the results you want. Most people actually want to reduce fat cells and increase muscle size. That’s how you achieve the healthy, toned look. However, without nutrition, your body has to consume muscle to make up for the poor diet. The end result is more skin and bones rather than healthy and well-muscled.
  • You ruin your metabolism. To some degree, once a metabolism is ruined, there’s no turning back. Your metabolism will naturally slow down with age, but starving your body of nutrients puts it into a tailspin. That’s why some with eating disorders have to keep eating less and less to sustain or lose weight. It’s not natural for a person to not lose weight at 1,000 or less calories. However, the body is powerful and committed to keeping you alive. The more you toy with your metabolism, the harder it will be to recover.
  • A bad diet makes you want to eat more. Your body is aware that it’s not getting the nutrition it needs, so it will continue to send hunger signals to your brain. There’s a reason 300 calories of broccoli is a lot bigger and more filling than 300 calories of sugar-free chocolates—and it doesn’t all have to do with physical size. Nutrient-rich foods are filling and dense. They keep you fuller longer, and satisfy the hunger cues in the brain. In other words, your body is perfectly designed to let you know when you’re satiated.

Instead of depending on over-exercising to balance out a poor diet, address both. Healthy weight management is usually 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. Focus more on the fuel than on the workouts, and you’ll get the results you want in a healthy way. Otherwise, you risk permanent damage by trying to “trick” the body. It has been created to function in a specific way, and following its natural pattern is always the best strategy.

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Matt Williamson
My name is Matt - fitness freak by choice. I intensively study and write about nutrition and health related topics. After reading and researching intensively on human health, I aspire to proliferate the wisdom that I acquired in a simple way.