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Friday, May 8, 2015

Fast Food Your Ideal Post-Workout Fuel? Not So Fast…

What should your post-workout meal really be?
Years ago, I had a late-20s client who fortified his grueling workout with a double cheeseburger and fries at In ‘N Out. At that age, you can get away with such dietary debacles, but once I got wind of his habit I explained how eating crap jeopardized his hard work in the gym.

“But it’s not like I’m getting fat or anything,” he replied. From his misguided comment came my blog "7 Dietary Mistakes Fitness-Minded People Frequently Mess Up."

Michael Cramer, a graduate student at the University of Montana, evidently didn't read this blog. His recent study (I use that word loosely), published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, reminded me of my former client’s comment that radically missed the bigger picture when it comes to fitness and optimal health. 

In this study, Cramer compared post-workout supplements like PowerBar and Cytomax energy powder with a few McDonald’s foods (hotcakes, hash browns, hamburgers, and fries).

Cramer used 11 male athletes, who fasted for 12 hours and then completed a 90-minute endurance workout. Then they either ate
McDonald’s hotcakes, orange juice, and a hash brown or Gatorade, organic peanut butter, and Cliff Shot Bloks.

Two hours after that post-workout meal, participants consumed a hamburger, fries, and Coke or Cytomax powder and PowerBar products.

Two hours after that second meal, all participants rode a stationary bike 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) as fast as possible.

Both intakes were approximately equal in macros. In other words, both groups ate about the same amounts of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates (though the fast food was slightly higher in fat and sodium).

All participants underwent muscle biopsies and extensive, repeated blood work that looked at insulin, glucose, and lipid levels.

One week later, they repeated that experiment but ate the opposite diet than they did before. In other words, the supplement group ate fast food one week later while the fast food group consumed supplements.

What did Cramer make of all this? Well, he found participants completed the 12.5-mile stationary bike ride about equally fast, regardless whether they ate fast food or supplements.

However, blood work revealed the fast food group had elevated (though not statistically significant) levels of muscle glycogen compared with the supplement group.

“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,” Cramer concluded.

So basically, you can chow down on a greasy post-workout cheeseburger, wash it down with a Coke and a milkshake, and perform better than those foolish sadists who consume nasty-tasting, overpriced supplements. Case closed.

Or is it?

Let’s backtrack a little bit. Eleven participants do not exactly make a study. Had Cramer tested, say, 250 athletes, I would be a little more impressed.

Duration becomes another big problem. The study, you’ll recall, lasted only several weeks. How might these athletes perform a year later with the same experiment?

Glycogen replenishment isn't the only goal of post-workout fortification. You also want to provide your body the tools for repair, recovery, and replenishment. Cramer misses the bigger picture by getting hung up on (as he calls it) glycogen resynthesis. 

Stop and consider too the long-term effects fast food creates on your body. When you eat fast food, you don’t feel good, you don’t look good, and your performance (in the gym and elsewhere) takes a serious hit. We saw those effects in Supersize Me, an experiment I don’t recommend you recreate.

Mind Body Green did a great infographic about fast food. If you’re contemplating hitting up a local drive thru after your next workout, just think about some of these statistics

Also consider the sports products researchers gave participants. They aren’t exactly stellar, nutrient-rich products. Most are basically sugar water with a few paltry “halo-creating” nutrients thrown in. Check out this blog to better understand why commercial sports drinks and other so-called sports nutrition supplements are absolute junk.

Essentially, Cramer was comparing how athletes perform with crappy supplements versus crappy food. A far worthier study would have compared these supplements with science-supported sports nutrients like glutamine and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), or maybe the effects of whole, nutrient-dense foods compared with high-quality supplements.

Cramer's study was like comparing rotten apples to rotten oranges: they both suck.

Let’s consider what a better-designed study would look like. I would include more participants (come on, how hard is it to recruit college athletes?) and look at performance over several months.

Post-workout fuel in my experiment would include whole, healthy foods or professional-quality supplements.

So participants might consume sweet potatoes, coconut products, nuts, steel-cut oatmeal, and even honey-sweetened healthy granola. In other words, real, nutrient-rich foods that provide your body the protein, healthy fats, and carbohydrates to repair, recover, and yes, optimally store glycogen levels.

Full disclosure: I work with Thorne Research, which recently launched a kickass sports nutrition line called EXOS. So yeah, I’m a little biased, but I think their stellar product line – with none of the sugar, preservatives, and other crap the products Cramer’s participants received – would yield impressive performance.

For people who don’t have time or an appetite to eat post-workout, supplements can conveniently provide the nutrients your body demands. Some people prefer to refuel with chicken breast and sweet potatoes; others do whey protein or BCAAs.

It’s your call. But gorging on fast food or cheap, sugary supplements post-workout will not deliver the results you want. My fast food-loving client became walking proof of that when he developed acne and became too fatigued to complete an hour workout.

Eventually he stopped showing up for training. “Maybe I’ll run into him during my once-in-a-blue-moon In ‘N Out visit,” I quipped to a coworker.

Post-workout, do you prefer real food or supplements like whey protein? Share your comments below or on my Facebook fan page.


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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!
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