Eating burgers, fries and soft drinks has long been associated with feeling sleepy, cruddy and generally lethargic. Those foods are considered grub for slobs more than fuel for athletes. Fast food has never been thought of as fuel that actually makes you fast.
However, a new study might shake up the way we view fast food. Both in terms of biological markers and level of performance, a meal of fast food items was found to aid in recovery almost exactly as well as a meal of foods specifically designed for that purpose.
The study obviously challenges the long-held belief that fast food is detrimental to athletic performance. STACK talked to Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine, and Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition, to find out what this study means for athletes.
The study, which was published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, examined the effects of "isoenergetic sport supplements vs. fast food on glycogen recovery and exercise performance."
Participants first completed an intense 90-minute session on a stationary bike, then underwent muscle biopsies and blood tests to determine their glycogen, insulin and blood lipid levels.
For the next four hours, participants sat and rested while consuming meals of either fast food or isoenergetic sport supplements. The fast food meals consisted of things like hamburgers, soda, fries, hash browns and hotcakes; the sport supplement meals consisted of energy bars, energy chews, sports drinks and organic peanut butter. The fast food meals totaled 1,330 calories and the sport supplement meals totaled 1,303 calories. Both meals had similar amounts of carbs and protein.
After four hours and another muscle biopsy, the participants completed a 20K stationary bike time trial to see how well they recovered from the earlier session.
The two groups produced similar levels of glycogen resynthesis, glucose response, cholesterol response, insulin response and time-trial performance. Researchers concluded, "These data indicate that short-term food options to initiate glycogen resynthesis can include dietary options not typically marketed as sports nutrition products such as fast food menu items."
Surprising, right? But does that mean that Big Macs should be your new go-to post-workout snack?
Not exactly. Until further studies are conducted, the effects of eating fast food for recovery on a regular basis remain unknown.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of this study was its length. It appears to have taken place over one day, limiting the ability to judge any long-term effects of this type of behavior. It's possible that eating fast food for recovery might have significantly different outcomes if it were done over a duration longer than a single day.
"They looked at one performance. How would this play out over the course of a season? Probably not well," St. Pierre says.
Another thing to consider is that the meals were portioned to have nearly identical amounts of carbs, protein and calories. In a situation where a buffet of fast food was offered to one group and a buffet of sports food supplements was offered to another, the results might be different. Why? Because fast food is usually higher in calories than people realize, meaning they're more likely to overeat it. For example, a serving of McDonald's French fries has 30 grams of carbs—but also 230 calories. For comparison, a serving of energy chews has 31 grams of carbs and only 120 calories.
"They calorie-controlled the fast food in this case," St. Pierre says. "It was a pre-determined amount. Fast food is usually eaten in much larger caloric quantities, which would likely not have been so beneficial. This didn't really reflect real-world consumption patterns of fast food."
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It should be also be noted the fast food was light on nutrition-sucking additions—the hamburger had no cheese or bacon, for example—and the meals consisted of items that wouldn't normally be consumed together (most people don't eat hash browns and pancakes with their burger).
However, in this single session, fast food did help participants recover as well as more expensive and supposedly more heavily researched sports food supplements. The reason? Most likely, it's that recovery is first and foremost about carbs and protein. "The body wants optimal carbohydrate and protein to help with muscle glycogen and muscle protein re-synthesis," Bonci says.
Due to the marketing and labeling of sports food supplements designed specifically for recovery, many people are willing to pay more for them. However, real foods can provide the same amount of calories, carbs and protein. "It's all in the perception," says Bonci. "Do we need to always consume something that says 'recovery' on it after a workout? No. But we also shouldn't be rushing to a fast food restaurant after a 5K."
Both St. Pierre and Bonci suggest the best recovery nutrition relies heavily on healthy whole foods. "Neither set-up in the study is how I would recommend anyone approach recovery," St. Pierre says. "A more balanced intake of whole foods will provide infinitely more nutrition, and effect other markers of recovery."
Whole foods often provide more useful nutrients than sports food supplements. They are also less expensive. "If you want to be both nutritious and money conscious, choose real food at the right time and in the correct amounts. Snacks such as jerky and pretzels, roasted soy nuts and apricots, or greek yogurt and granola can all be great choices," Bonci says.
However, fast food can do the trick if you're in a pinch. "If fast food is your only option, make the best of it, as it definitely beats no food," St. Pierre says. Try to pick choices that allow you to hit a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein (though that ratio can be closer to 4:1 for endurance athletes), and minimize additions like cheeses and sauces that offer little in the way of nutritional benefits.
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