The link between nutrition and heart disease has been up for debate since the 1960s. We can attribute the beginnings of the major research behind this topic to Dr. Ancel Keys, a physiologist. He determined that arterial plaques contain cholesterol, cholesterol tends to be related to saturated fat, and that heart disease is related to saturated fat.
The Seven Countries Study was how Keys became well-known. This infamous study was conducted to explore the associations of diet, lifestyle, and disease rates among populations in seven different countries (USA, Finland, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, former Yugoslavia, and Japan). One particular finding from it was that the elderly populations with healthy diets and lifestyles were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and “all-cause mortality”. The lifestyles included physical activity, non-smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption.
This large-scale study ultimately created the foundation for the Standard American diet and the many changes that have been made to it.
Since then, we have come a long way in the realm of dietary guidelines. At this point, one of the more popularly-encouraged diets is the Mediterranean Diet. It includes grains, fruits, and vegetables; as well as seafood, chicken, eggs, and fermented dairy. This diet limits red meat consumption and sugary, processed foods. It also calls for cooking with healthy fats like olive oil. Therefore, this diet is ideal for those wanting to prevent the onset of heart or metabolic diseases. I have covered the Mediterranean Diet here and here.
So what does physical activity have to do with our health, specifically our cardiovascular health, and even our weight loss journey?
More recent studies have been done that want to get down to the energy in/energy out concept. What do I mean by energy? Well, every person has a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) and a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). RMR is used to measure the energy expended while at rest, not participating in exercise or activities. BMR is a more concise measurement of the energy that is used to merely exist (inhale, exhale, circulation, etc.). Moreover, your RMR should lead you to accurately calculate your BMR. Typically, those with a higher BMR are considered to be more fit.
The majority of us are more or less familiar with the popular show “The Biggest Loser”, where the contestants who are morbidly obese rise to the challenge of competing against one another to see who can lose the most weight. Several studies have taken place years afterward, that look at the aftermath of the show and how successful or unsuccessful the past contestants have become in their weight loss journeys/everyday lives. As these people go through this competition, they experience metabolic adaptations due to the drastic increases in physical activities and in their caloric restrictions.
One study found that the more successful men and women that competed in The Biggest Loser competition, were those who continued their physical activity levels beyond the competition. The researchers concluded that the “short-term reductions in RMR during the competition were commensurate with extreme caloric restriction during the period of active weight loss, but the large persistent metabolic adaptation long after the competition ended may have been the result of substantial sustained increases in physical activity”. Because the contestants took it upon themselves to stay disciplined in their fitness, they reaped more benefits from the competition.
Another study on massive weight loss was done, and it compared weight loss via “The Biggest Loser” and weight loss via gastric bypass surgery. Although both groups had similar final weight losses, the participants of gastric bypass surgery lost more fat-free mass (FFM); in other words, muscle mass. Both groups experienced RMR reductions and decreases in circulating leptin. If you are not familiar, leptin regulates appetite and energy balance. Leptin is produced by fat cells; so the less fat mass one has, the less leptin they produce. The study concluded that better results occurred in those who participated in The Biggest Loser Competition because of the greater metabolic adaptations and preservation of FFM.
Many have speculated that competitions like The Biggest Loser have caused individuals to be more prone to weight regain, but these studies have proven that this is untrue. They have determined that the rate at which the participants lose weight is the best predictor for long-term weight loss results.
Our metabolism has proven to be malleable. With that being said, if you don’t have much fat mass to lose (or manipulate), you likely won’t see huge changes in your BMR. However, the research continues to prove that increasing difficulty in exercise routines allows for a degree of metabolic adaptations. Coupling a progressive exercise protocol with a diet similar to the Mediterranean Diet seems like a wise way to prevent heart and metabolic disease…and a great way to get stronger.
Sounds like a reasonable method to prolong one’s life as well.
By Lucy Chilcutt