The worst riot I’ve seen in my life wasn’t televised, nor did it occur in Los Angeles.
It happened when I was a teenager working at McDonald’s, and we ran out of french fries shortly after a tourist bus pulled into our parking lot. Chaos ensued quickly after I made the announcement that we were out of fries. People were yelling, screaming, and threatening us teenaged employees. I remember looking out into the angry mob, hoping to catch a glimpse of decency, only to see an elderly woman with a “rollator” perform an obscene hand gesture towards me. There was no decency—all I saw was a sea of eyes jaundiced by the aroma emanating from fry-less vats of cooking oil. That day, I witnessed the dark side of humanity because of an unfortunate shortage of french fries.
This event almost inspired me to write a short story called, “The Lord of the Fries.”
Being an innocent bystander in the “French Fry Riot of 1997” showed me the significance of fast food. Although fast food is delicious, cheap, and convenient; it can wreak havoc on one’s health and attempts to lose weight.
Reducing or eliminating fast food is one of the most important recommendations I make in my weight loss clinic.
Occasionally, I encounter people who aren’t ready to eat less fast food. For those patients, I have to think of alternative strategies to help them reach their goals despite continuing to eat fast food. These alternatives typically emphasize exercise. With this in mind, an article suggesting that high-intensity interval training programs may counter some of the harmful effects of fast food immediately caught my attention. I want to review high-intensity interval training programs and the results of this particular study.
What is High-Intensity Interval Training?
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, high-intensity interval training (HIIT—pronounced ‘hit’) entails exercising for brief, intense periods of time followed by short periods of rest.
Dr. Izumi Tabata, a Japanese Scientist, popularized HIIT in the mid-90s after studying the interval-based routines of the Japanese Olympic Speed Skating Team. He showed that 4 minutes of intense exercise broken up over 14 minutes is more effective than longer periods of moderate exercise, such as jogging (1). These brief periods of exercise or work require an intensity of 80-90% of one’s maximal effort. It’s tough to translate percentages of effort into actual activity—finding it difficult to have a conversation while working out typically corresponds to 80% of your maximal effort (unless you have asthma, COPD, or other medical problems). The active ‘work’ periods can last from 5 secs to a couple of minutes. Overall, HIIT routines typically require a total duration of at least 4 minutes to an hour. The length of the routine depends on the intensity of the exercises within the routine.
HIIT routines are popular because of their short duration and effectiveness. Several successful commercial products, such as P90X and Insanity, take advantage of the HIIT concept.
Did the study really show that high intensity interval training can make up for eating fast food for every meal daily?
The study, recently published in the journal Nutrients, set out to determine if high intensity interval training could counterbalance eating fast food every day for every meal (2).
The study’s participants ate McDonald’s value meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a total of 14 consecutive days.
These days also included one snack from McDonald’s. During the 14 days of exclusively eating fast food, the participants engaged in a high intensity interval training routine that consisted of sprinting on a treadmill for 60 seconds followed by 60 seconds of rest for a total of 15 intervals. The researchers checked measurements including weight, body mass index, body composition, and blood pressure before and after the study. They also performed blood tests including cholesterol levels, inflammatory markers, and blood glucose both pre and post study. They used sensewear armbands to measure energy expenditure while the participants were exercising.
There were a total of 16 people who participated in the study. They were all normal weight to slightly overweight, male, university students. The men did not have any preexisting health problems and they all routinely exercised at least 150 minutes per week prior to starting the study.
During the study, the men consumed an average of 3441 calories per day—over twice the recommended amount for anyone (don’t try this at home). The men also had an average energy expenditure of 3500 calories per day, indicating that they still burned off more calories than they were taking in. The researchers found that each HIIT routine burned an average of 413 calories and that the men burned an additional 1500 calories just by engaging in routine activities such as walking.
Despite eating this massive amount of calories, the participants did not gain weight, nor did they have any adverse effects on blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, the researches found improvement in some parameters including blood glucose levels and HDL, the good cholesterol. They even found that lean body mass fat mass all all decreased.
The researchers concluded that high intensity interval training may offer some protection against a fast food exclusive diet.
What are some limitations of this study?
As promising as the study may seem, there are some limitations worth noting. The study’s small number of participants is one obvious limitation. Sixteen people is too small of a population to expect similar results in the general population. Another limitation is that the participants were all young, male, healthy, and physically active.
None of the participants were significantly overweight or obese.
As a result, it is doubtful that people with underlying health problems or people who are trying to lose weight will have the same benefits found in the study. Plus, the people in the study did not lose weight, they just didn’t gain weight.
One of the biggest limitations of the study is that it only lasted for two weeks. Although HIIT may have prevented a negative health impact from fast food over 2 weeks, it is not clear if the positive effects of HIIT are sustained over longer periods of time. I doubt years of eating fast food for every meal will be consequence free, even with daily HIIT routines.
What are some take home points regarding HIIT and fast food?
- High Intensity Interval Training is an excellent addition to any workout routine
- Eating fast food every day is not healthy.
- HIIT may prevent negative effects of eating fast food daily for a brief period of time in healthy individuals.
- Even with HIIT routines, don’t expect weight loss with eating fast food daily.
- If you eat fast food every day, you have to burn off a lot calories to prevent weight gain.
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- Tabata I., Nischimura K., Kouzaki M., Hirai Y., Ogita F., Miyachi M., Yamamoto K. (1996) Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2 max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise28(10), 1327-1330
- Duval C, Rouillier MA, Rabasa-Lhoret R, Karelis AD. High Intensity Exercise:Can It Protect You from A Fast Food Diet? Nutrients. 2017 Aug 26;9(9). pii: E943.doi: 10.3390/nu9090943.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.