13 Apr 2016

Nutrition — How To: Fast Food

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Background: Fast Food & Performance: 

Shhhh. The food police is around here somewhere: keep the fast food talk down! Ha, we probably talk about fast food on the daily. Why? Because people eat it. And, it’s more than just the few people that cop to it… unless just five people have eaten all of McDonald’s 300 billion hamburgers sold. 
First, the not so good news… Most fast food options tend to be excessively high in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, omega-6 fat, salt, and sugar. They tend to be low in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and other performance-powering micronutrients. High-fat meals slow gastric emptying and delay the absorption of other nutrients for up to 8 hours (or longer), which means gut bombs during games as well as quicker fatigue because of slower absorption of carbohydrates (from things like sports drinks). Excess pro-inflammatory fats and sugars mean slower recoveries, reduced lean mass gains from training, and higher risk of injuries. Insufficient magnesium can impede the vasodilation that occurs with exercise to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to working muscles; it can also result in suboptimal breakdown of carbohydrates for energy since over 300 energy-producing enzymes in your body require magnesium.


Fast food is rarely your best option because of the poor macronutrient breakdown and inflammatory nature of the food. But, sometimes it’s the option you choose because of time, taste, whatever. It’s definitely better than not eating at all, and it’s possible to make better decisions at these restaurants. How do you make fast food restaurants work for you?

1) First off, choose places where it’s easier to make good decisions. Restaurants like Subway or Chipotle have more lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and vegetable options, which will make eating for performance easier than will places like McDonald’s or Taco Bell. Check out the Baseball Nutrition Institute for better fast food restaurants as well as performance-edited menus at over 30 fast food and other restaurants (Resources > “Better Fast Food Options”).

2) Take a page out of Dwight Schrute’s playbook and KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.

  • Start with simple, lean protein choices. Basic grilled chicken burgers, hamburgers, or turkey sandwiches tend to be your best options (and often appear on value menus). These provide more calories from protein and carbohydrate and less from fat. You get into trouble when you go for the specialty triple-stacked, baco-cheese Xplozion.
    • Three Wendy’s Jr. Hamburgers (a little over $3) provide about 800 calories, 45g protein, 100g carbohydrate, and 27g fat… some beef, bread, bun, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions… not bad for fast food! One Baconator (over $6), on the other hand, provides similar calories and protein, but twice the fat… that means that you get over 50% of calories from fat. Since 15-30% of calories from fat is your goal, that’s going to be a problem. Keep it simple and avoid extra cheeses, creamy sauces, bacon, and other fried items.

3) Get smart with your sides. Forgo the fries or cookies and ask about other options like crisp apple slices, carrot sticks, 100% fruit squeezes, and salads. You’ll trade food comas and sugar spikes for glycogen-packed muscles and better recovery.

4) Skip the soda. Water, milk, or chocolate milk are your go-to’s. The high fructose corn syrup and phosphoric acid in soda can leach nutrients from your bones and slow growth hormone production by your body. Slower and weaker is not exactly a great career path for an athlete.

5) Pay attention to timing and frequency. Fast food 1-2x per week or less is a good rule of thumb. Your decisions will have to be especially on point if you are eating out before or after games/workouts, as these are crucial times for supporting performance and recovery. You may have to cut back even further if you are…

  • Mid-season
  • Trying to reduce body fat percentage
  • Sleeping poorly
  • Feeling more tired/sluggish than usual
  • Struggling with upset stomach during games, practices, or workouts
  • Recovering from injury or are concerned about injury prevention


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3 Fast Food Myths

Fast food is cheaper! Than what? A steak dinner out? Sure. But, the average cost of a fast food meal is in the $4 to $7 range. Prepare your own food and you spend $2 to $4. Meal and ingredient quality must also be considered. 20 chicken nuggets might only cost you $5, but that’s only part of a performance-powering meal. Where are the carbohydrates? The vegetables? The healthy fats? This is getting expensive… for your bank account AND your performance.
Fast food is quicker! Sometimes, but not usually. When you consider the time it takes to drive, wait in line, and wait for your food, it’s often much quicker to make a sandwich, an omelet, a smoothie, or throw some snacks in your bag, or reheat leftovers… you could probably do all of those. Keeping the fridge and pantry stocked is an easy way to save time and money during the week. Check out the ViTL Shopping Guide, Quick Snack Ideas, and easy recipes in the Institute for help!


Fast food is unhealthy. False! Well, it depends. A triple-stacked, baco-cheese Xplozion pre-game isn’t going to treat you well. If you haven’t eaten in a day, a hamburger is probably a great source of calories and protein. The point here is that the ‘healthiness’ of a food is relative – foods are not inherently healthy or unhealthy. It is the interaction between the food and the person that determines whether a food is beneficial for performance, health, etc. That is, the impact on health of a specific food depends on various factors – the rest of your diet, age, gender, performance goals, medical history, lifestyle, activity, the list goes on – so we all have to stop labeling foods as either good or bad; it just doesn’t work that way… Abundant calcium intake from milk without vitamin K, for instance, may increase your risk of artery calcification (an indicator of heart disease) and increase your bone size without increasing bone strength. Substantial vitamin K intake for individuals with certain blood clotting disorders, however, can be deadly. While these are some extreme examples, you can see that a “good” or “bad” food depends very much on the individual and the rest of their diet.

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