Why Some People Can Eat Garbage Without Gaining Weight

some people can eat garbage
Oren Aks/Thrillist

Everyone knows that guy -- the one who can chug more than his fair share of beer, scarf down an entire pepperoni pizza, grab an ice cream, and make a donut run the next morning, all without gaining a pound.

Meanwhile, others go easy with the dressing on their salad, stick to something light at happy hour, and maybe, maybe treat themselves to a few pieces of candy, hopeful that a cool 30 minutes on the treadmill will keep the scale in check.

What gives? Isn't everyone playing by the same rules of caloric intake?

Not exactly. A new study suggests that people's bodies respond to the same food in very different ways, which means that at least one measure of food's impact on metabolism -- the glycemic index, or how a food affects blood sugar -- isn't as reliable as once thought. And if the glycemic index is inaccurate, and foods don't elicit the same blood sugar response in everyone, it helps explain why so much nutrition advice doesn't hold up.

"If you have two people who are given the same exact diet, they won't necessarily weigh the same," says Dr. Judith Korner, director at the Weight Control Center at Columbia University Medical Center. "There is a genetic basis for how much they can consume."

Here's what's going with those friends who eat whatever the hell they want, without seeing the slightest change in their waistlines.

They've got good genes

Not happy with the way your body looks when you stray from your otherwise healthy diet? Blame mom and dad. Dr. Korner says genetics program your "set point," the weight your body strives to maintain. Some people may have a set point at a BMI of 22, while other bodies have a tendency to maintain a BMI of 28 or 30, depending on their genes and hormones.

"If you try and alter that set point, your body definitely fights against it," Dr. Korner continues. "There have been studies where you take people of any size, thin or obese, and if you underfeed them, there are changes in the body that try to get them back to their original weight. It also works the other way too -- the body will try to burn up that extra food to get them back to the set point."

That skinny friend who chows down on fast food for three meals a day, well, his body does what's necessary to keep the weight off naturally. People with a higher set point, however, are in a constant battle with their bodies to keep that number on the scale low.

"A lot of people can lose weight, but it's fighting to keep that weight off that's very difficult. Your body is working against you to get that weight back, increasing hunger signals, lowering metabolism, all the things to get you back to that higher weight," says Dr. Korner.

Their metabolisms are at roadrunner levels

The formula for weight gain is pretty simple: consume more calories than you burn, and vice versa. But how many calories you burn daily is much more dependent on your metabolism than hours spent at the gym. In fact, basic functions, like breathing and circulation, account for nearly three-quarters of the calories you burn daily, and your genetics determine this basal metabolic rate.

"[If your friend] is really having many more calories than you are, then his metabolism is probably faster and his body uses up calories much, much more quickly. That's probably how he was born," says Dr. Korner. "[It's like how] some people are born with blue eyes and some with brown eyes."

Age, body composition, gender, and physical activity levels also impact metabolic rates, but genetics are the biggest factor, according to Dr. Korner. Unbeknownst to you, that friend who eats whatever they want might secretly schedule Barry's Bootcamp classes five days a week... or they might burn off that junk food just by vegging out in front of the TV. No one said life was fair.

They're eating less energy-dense foods

A pound of lettuce may weigh the same as a pound of fried chicken, but they certainly don't have the same effect on the body. That chronically thin friend who's constantly eating might actually be consuming foods that are less caloric than you think, Dr. Korner points out.

"It can look like someone's eating a lot, maybe they'll have this giant bowl in front of them, but the bowl may contain a salad of beans, chicken, and no dressing," she says. "It looks like they're just chewing and chewing and chewing, but their foods are less energy dense."

There are people who say they eat whatever they want without gaining weight -- and they're not lying. While that might conjure up feasts of fried chicken, mac & cheese, and cream puffs in your mind, their palates may prefer less-caloric foods, allowing them to eat a much larger quantity.

They probably don't actually eat that much

Reality is not always as it seems. People tend to eat more and indulge in their favorite foods when they're out with friends, calorie counts be damned. Even if you saw your friend consume more chicken nuggets last night than you eat in six months, their regular diet is likely more modest.

"I think that it's an exaggeration. They may be eating what they want, but probably the number of calories they're consuming is not huge. If they start eating thousands of calories a day, I think that they would gain weight," says Dr. Korner.

The opposite is true too, says Dr. Korner, who has seen patients that claim they've cut calories but still haven't seen the scale budge. Their perceptions of their diets are probably off.

"If you look at their food diary, you'll see a granola bar, and the patient thought that it was healthy but didn't realize the number of calories in this supposedly healthy granola bar was pretty significant. It's thermodynamically impossible to take in less [than you burn] and not lose weight."

The bottom line is that food affects everyone in different ways. Some people are allergic to gluten, others can satisfy a sugar craving with the tiniest square of dark chocolate, and a lucky few can seemingly eat enough calories to feed an elephant, without ever looking like one. The best diet is always the one that works for you, not someone else's plan.

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Joni Sweet is a writer who treats herself to macaroni & cheese for lunch at least twice a week, but hopefully doesn't look like it. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JoniSweet.