Tim Lincecum is an athlete in the prime of his career. In the past three years, the 26-year-old pitcher has earned two Cy Young awards, a World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants, and one hell of an imposing nickname: “The Freak.”
But now you could call him “The Pig,” thanks to the crazy new diet he started in the off-season in hopes of packing on pounds to his slender frame. Last week, Lincecum told reporters that his daily lunch consisted of three double-double burgers, two orders of fries, and a half-chocolate, half-strawberry milkshake from In-N-Out Burger. That adds up to a whopping 3,150 calories for lunch alone. “My metabolism is through the roof,” said the pitcher in an interview with USA Today.
No kidding (and we wish we were him). Like many other professional athletes, Lincecum relies on a swift metabolism and constant training to balance out the colossal calories in a fast-food diet. Other notorious gorgers include Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, who dines at McDonald’s three times a day; Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom, who eats bags of candy for breakfast; and the king of over-consumption, Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps, whose 12,000-calorie-a-day diet during swimming season is a thing of legend.
But it made us wonder: Even though athletes can get away with eating junk, because they work their butts off, does a crap diet also hurt their performance on the field or court? We asked the experts:
Can You Really “Work Off” Fast Food?
“From a physique standpoint, yes. They may still have six-pack abs and low body fat, but would they perform better if they substituted some of the junk in their diet with healthier foods? As a dietitian, I’d certainly like to think so,” says Marie Spano, R.D., a sports nutritionist in Atlanta who works with pro and college athletes.
Athletes can still perform at a high level on a fast-food diet, but without a true variety of foods, they miss out on nutrients vital to their game. “Fast food often lacks antioxidant-rich, fiber-packed fruits and veggies that can help an athlete recover faster and delay fatigue,” Spano says.
Does a Junk-Food Diet Hurt Their Health Even if They Can Still Perform at an Elite Level?
Yes, says Spano. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the influx of trans fats in fast foods contributes to chronic inflammation of blood vessels, a primary factor in the development of heart disease. Even at seemingly tiny quantities—just a few grams a day from a serving of fries—trans fats wreak havoc in your body, causing inflammation and negative changes in blood lipids, says Spano.
But could athletes still eat poorly and negate those health risks by training hard? “All of those changes can possibly be attenuated by vigorous exercise but—and this is a huge but—whether or not a person can get away with this likely depends on genetics,” Spano says. Genetics play a role in blood pressure, blood lipids, and cardiovascular disease, so some people are at a higher risk for these problems even if they exercise, Spano says.
Are Junk-Food-Eating Athletes More Likely to Become Obese after Retirement?
“We teach athletes to overeat in order to maintain or gain body weight,” explains Spano. “But when they’re done playing, they are so used to this pattern of eating that it takes time to adjust their food intake to match their decreased physical activity for their weight and body type. This is a large part of why ex-NFL players can pack on the pounds as soon as their football careers are over,” she says. And every year the players stay obese, the clock ticks down faster: A recent study from Monash University found that people who have been obese for five to 15 years are twice as likely to die early, and that risk shoots up 7 percent with every additional two years.