McDonald’s must be lovin’ it.
A study has found that fast food is just as effective as expensive energy bars, protein drinks or dietary supplements when it comes to recovering from intense workouts. Junk food may be just as good as those high-tech powders, gummies and shakes in your gym bag.
In a recently published study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, entitled “Fast food results in similar post-exercise glycogen recovery and exercise performance compared to sport supplements,” University of Montana graduate student Michael Joseph Cramer and colleagues subjected eleven elite male athletes to a seemingly inane experiment, which, by the way, you probably shouldn’t try on your own.
Cramer asked the athletes to fast for four hours, then undergo a grueling 90-minute treadmill workout. Half of the athletes were then given a diet that has become de rigeur for athletes of all ages and talent levels around the world: Gatorade, chewable energy cubes, organic peanut butter and power bars.
The other half of the test subjects were given precisely what most people would think to avoid after exercise: hotcakes, hashbrowns, hamburgers, fries and Coke. Two hours after they finished eating, the subjects rode 12.4 miles on stationary bikes as fast as they could. A week later, the athletes repeated the experiment on the opposite diet. Cramer took blood and tissue samples after both stages.
Although Cramer calculated the two types of meal to have roughly the same number of calories, carbohydrates and protein, the fast food diets were much higher in salt and fat. Yet, Cramer found that the athletes completed the exercises just as easily and quickly after scarfing down sloppy cheeseburgers as they did after ingesting expensive energy cubes. In fact, the subjects showed higher levels of muscle glycogen — or energy reserves — after eating fast food than they did after eating the nominally more nutritious diet. Cramer also found no difference in insulin, glucose, cholesterol or triglyceride levels of the athletes. Nor did the athletes feel any sicker after eating junk food and exercising than they did on the other diet.
Cramer’s experiment casts doubt on a multi-billion-dollar industry of sports supplements. Imagine Michael Jordan chugging Cheez Whiz instead of Gatorade in commercials. Or cyclists chowing down on cheeseburgers during the Tour de France.
“These data are novel in demonstrating effective glycogen recovery benefits from fast food menu items comparable to products most often advertised to enhance recovery,” Cramer wrote in his study, which was published last summer. “In addition, these data suggest that a wide range of appropriate nutritional strategies can be implemented to initiate exercise recovery and prepare for subsequent bouts of performance.”
Cramer was careful not to claim that fast food is good for you, only that it serves athletes just as well as more widely accepted — and more expensive — sports supplements when it comes to recovering after a workout. “Food sources that are marketed differently have similar potential for providing basic recovery needs of the muscle and may offer a convenient and economical approach to glycogen recovery under some circumstances,” he concluded.
In other words, it’s OK to indulge after an afternoon in the gym. In fact, it might be just what your workout has been missing.