Over the past several decades, researchers have worked towards identifying the ideal recovery diet. The consensus is that following prolonged exercise, the idea recovery strategy is a high carbohydrate snack or meal containing some protein. As for soccer matches, most recommend bringing recovery items to the match rather than utilizing the services of a fast-food restaurant. The International Journal of Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism recently published a study that is sure to raise some eyebrows. In this study, researchers found that consuming fast food was as effective in recovering from heavy exercise, as a meal comprised of sport supplements. This study begs the question, are fast foods a solid recovery meal?
In this study, a group of healthy cyclists exercised for 90 minutes using an interval training type of protocol – repeated intervals of 2 minutes of high intensity cycling followed by 4 minutes pedaling at a moderate intensity. Subjects were then given a meal immediately after the exercise session and another at 2 hours into recovery. Four hours after the initial bout, they completed a 20 km time trial. During recovery period, the researchers took blood and muscle samples then analyzed them for glucose, insulin and glycogen
On one visit to the laboratory, the cyclists ate meals that consisted of fast food items such as pancakes, hash browns and orange juice followed by a hamburger, small fries and a soda. On another occasion, they were given a meal of sports supplements containing Gatorade, organic peanut butter and Cliff Shot Bloks followed by a PowerBar recovery bar and energy chews.
The results showed that recovery and 20 km time trial performances were similar regardless of the type of meal eaten. During recovery and exercise, blood levels of insulin and glucose were quite similar. Also, the recovery and replenishment of muscle glycogen (the key fuel source for exercise) were not different between the two diets. More importantly, the time trial completion times were 34.1 and 34.3 minutes for the sport supplement and fast-food diets, respectively. These times were also similar to practice trials, indicating that the two diets resulted in full recovery from the initial 90-minute session.
At first glance, this study suggests that players can eat a recovery diet consisting of fast food and perform well. That is, a quick through to the drive-thru is as effective as a well-planned and well-prepared recovery meal. However, the key to understanding the results lie in a composition of the diets. For both the fast-food and sport supplement diets, the macronutrient compositions were nearly identical. That is, the amounts of carbohydrates, proteins and fats were similar. The percentages of calories were as well, 68% carbohydrates, 8% protein, and 24% fat. These values are within what most would consider a solid recovery meal containing primarily carbohydrates, some protein and limited fat. Basically, the subjects followed a reasonable recovery strategy in both cases. Thus, it is not surprising that the time trial results did not differ between the two meals.
A few news agencies picked up on this study and implied that it's OK to recover from exercise using a fast-food diet. This is clearly not what is shown in this study. The problem with a fast-food diet is not that the foods come from a fast-food establishment. The primary problem is the specific items that players typically select. Many, if not most the items on a fast-food menu are not considered solid selections worthy of inclusion in a recovery diet. For example, a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with cheese contains 43% if its calories as fat. A Burger King Whopper is more than 50% fat. French fries check in at 40-45% fat, chicken nuggets at 60-65%. These fat contents are far in excess of what is recommended for a recovery meal. Coupled with the high fat content is a fairly low carbohydrate content. Eating these items will delay and diminish the recovery of muscle glycogen. As a result, performance will be impaired, especially during the later stages of a match.
It is also important to point out that the macronutrient composition of these items are well outside of what should be included in a normal, healthy diet, approximately 70% carbohydrates, 10% protein and 20% fat. In addition most fast-food items are high in salt and preservatives. Thus, fast-food on a daily basis is not a wise strategy.
It is important to understand that not all fast-food is laden with fat. Grilled chicken sandwiches (without mayonnaise) generally contain 20% or less fat. Turkey sub-sandwiches are also quite low in fat. McDonalds Fruit & Maple Oatmeal contains 12% fat and 80% carbohydrates. These are solid choices for a recovery or pre-match meal. While it can be difficult to find solid choices at many fast-food establishments, there are many available. But one has to do a bit of homework, as did the authors of the study.
In a Twitter post, Mark Russell of Northumbria University noted that the researchers should have added a whole foods condition to the study. He raises a very good point, especially considering the long-term health issues associated with fast-foods and consumption of processed food products, additives and refined sugars. In fact, the sodium content of the fast food diet used in this study was ~50% greater than the supplement meals. A diet that contains whole foods - fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats, rather than the processed items found is the fast-food and supplement diets is clearly the basis of a healthy, life-long diet. Such an approach to recovery is likely to be beneficial as well.
In the end, this study emphasizes that the composition of the recovery diet is the key to performance, not necessarily the source of the food. In the short term, the selection of foods that are low in fat, high in carbohydrates with some protein is what is most important for recovery. And some of these items can be found at fast-food establishments. But one has to look closely at what is offered. The advice remains the same, skip the fried foods, fatty meats and condiments such as mayonnaises and focus on lean meat sandwiches, gilled, baked meats and whole grain breads. As for a long-term, solid diet, limit the trips to the drive through and opt for whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats.
Cramer MJ, Dumke CL, Halles WS, Cuddy JS, Ruby BC (2015) Post-exercise glycogen recovery and exercise performance is not significantly different between fast food and sport supplements. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Performance, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2014-0230.