Tag Archives: healthy fast food

Skip the smoothie, have a burger? Fast food for exercise recovery.

Many athletes use specialized supplements before, during, and after exercise to improve performance and enhance strength and endurance gains from training. Many non-athletes also use similar supplements, even though they may not need them. And a recent study suggests that fast food, literally meals from McDonald’s, can work as well as more expensive sports supplements for promoting muscle recovery following intense exercise. I try to make sense of all of this in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


After exercise, many athletes consume specialized beverages and foods that supply nutrients to help their muscles recover. These recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake, or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks and foods enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you may consume these products after you work out. Let’s explore when and for whom these recovery products might be useful.

Intense endurance exercise—think of a distance runner, cyclist, or triathlete—uses muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise sessions that last at least 60–90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. Resynthesizing that muscle glycogen is a priority following exercise.

Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle, so it makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased.

It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen replenishment and increases muscle protein synthesis. This is why many specialized recovery drinks and foods include a combination of carbohydrates and protein. The best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. Similarly, the muscle is most responsive to extra protein immediately after a resistance training session.

Perhaps these recovery drinks, bars, and shakes aren’t even necessary. Sports nutritionists have long recommended conventional foods and beverages for athletes after exercise. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published last week, fast food may work just as well!

In this study cyclists were fed either commercial recovery aids or food from McDonald’s including pancakes, sausage, juice, a burger, fries, and soda after they completed an intense exercise session. Importantly, the meals contained equal amount of calories and nutrients. It turns out that there was no significant difference in how quickly muscle glycogen was replenished or in performance in a subsequent exercise bout between the two conditions. While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.

But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.

The bottom line is that these recovery aids are not always necessary and you can get the same benefits from regular food. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burn during exercise. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. For most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.

Subway’s identity problem (and why it matters).

If you are looking for a healthy place to eat lunch, chances are you will think of Subway. More than any other fast food restaurant, Subway has developed a reputation for being a healthy choice, consistent with losing weight and an active lifestyle. While you can get healthy food at Subway, you may end up eating a meal that is similar to traditional fast food in terms of calories, fat, and sodium.

This “identity problem” — Is it a healthy option to regular fast food? Or just an alternative to fast food? —  is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.  This matters, of course, because you may well be fooling yourself into thinking you are making healthy choices when you aren’t.

Subway has long been thought of a healthy alternative to traditional fast food. This is largely due to a menu that has fresh-looking sandwiches rather than burgers and fries. Food at Subway looks healthy. This image is enhanced by a marketing strategy that associates Subway with health and wellness, something they seem to do better than any other fast food chain. Advertisements featuring former Olympians were abundant during the winter Olympics television broadcasts and the continuing association with Jared Fogle, who lost nearly 250 pounds by drastically changing his diet—including eating at Subway—and becoming more active strengthen this image.

The Subway menu does include several sandwiches designated as Fresh Fit choices that are low in fat and calories and could contain a full serving of vegetables. If you read the fine print you will see that this is true if you order a 6-inch sandwich on plain bread with meat and veggies, but no condiments or cheese. Adding mayo, sauces, and cheese or substituting another bread will increase the calories and fat in the sandwich. But, if you make smart choices, select a healthy side such as apple slices, and have water, unsweet tea, or another calorie-free drink, you can get a healthy, low-calorie meal.

However, that does not mean that all of the sandwiches at Subway are good choices if you want limit calories or fat. One of the sandwiches featured currently is the Fritos chicken enchilada sandwich, which is served exactly as it sounds: shredded chicken topped with enchilada sauce and Fritos chips. But if it comes from Subway it must be healthy, right?

Wrong! If you look at the nutrition information you will find that this sandwich has 580 calories, 26 grams of fat (which account for 40% of the calories), and 1170 milligrams of sodium (nearly half of what you should get in a whole day). The best traditional fast food comparison is the Big Mac at McDonald’s, which has 550 calories, 29 grams of fat, and 970 milligrams of sodium. Considering that many people eat at Subway in an effort to avoid the fat and calories of fast food, this would not be a good choice.

The point is that while you can get a healthy meal at Subway, many menus items are as high in fat, calories, and sodium as food at other fast food restaurants. The image that Subway has carefully cultivated likely conceals this fact, leading people to think they are eating a healthy meal when, in reality, they are not. It is also possible to get a meal at McDonald’s and many other fast food restaurants that is nutritionally similar to the healthier sandwiches at Subway.

This is a good lesson, since menus at many restaurants include a “healthy choices” section. Keep in mind that food that appears to be healthy may not be and that a restaurant typically thought of as a poor choice may have healthy menu items. The trick is to check out the nutrition information and make smart choices.

Read this before you go out for lunch today: Comparing fast food and casual dining restaurant meals.

Everyone know that fast food is unhealthy. Of course, some fast food is better than others and it is possible to get a reasonably healthy meal at a fast food restaurant. But if you are concerned about calories, fat, added sugar, and sodium in your diet, fast food probably isn’t the best choice.

Eating at a casual dining restaurant such as Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, and T.G.I. Friday’s must be healthier, right? Think again! My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week addresses this issue.

According to data collected by one of my students, Kyle Sprow, this is not always the case.

He compared a typical meal from McDonald’s, Subway, and  Applebee’s. The Applebee’s menu includes Weight Watchers low-calorie options  in addition to the regular menu items, so he looked at both. We chose these restaurants because of their popularity and because their menus are consistent with other similar restaurants.

He was able to compare typical fast food (McDonald’s), “healthy” fast food (Subway), a typical meal at a casual dining restaurant (Applebee’s regular menu), and healthy options at the same restaurant (Weight Watchers menu). Here is what he found:

  • The sit-down restaurant meal is likely to be higher in calories and fat than fast food. This is due in part to large portion sizes.
  • A meal at Subway may be lower in calories and fat than a meal at McDonald’s, but depends on what type and size of sandwich (and condiments) you choose.
  • The Weight Watchers menu at Applebee’s really is much lower in fat and calories than the regular menu, even better than Subway.
  • No matter where you eat, you are likely to get a lot of sodium in your meal, at least 50% of your daily recommended intake even if you chose the “healthy” options.

So, what will you have for lunch today?


If you were paid millions of dollars, you would lose weight too!

Jared Fogle has been a spokesperson for Subway restaurants for 15 years now. He has had a huge impact on Subway sales, largely because of his remarkable weight loss which was due, in part, to eating Subway sandwiches. (Of course, there is nothing magical about his “Subway diet.” The weight loss was due to the fact that he was eating far fewer calories!)

What is more remarkable than his initial weight loss is the fact that Jared kept the weight off for 15 years. He has had some serious motivation to do so. First, he has literally been paid millions of dollars to keep the weight off. Second, because his story is so widely known and because he is so recognizable, Jared is accountable to all of us. His weight regain would be noticed by many people, include some who have made him a role model.

Most of us won’t get paid to lose weight (or exercise or quit smoking), but we can find something to motivate us. And by telling people about our goals—or better yet, getting them involved with us—we are accountable to others. In this way we can benefit from the very same factors that have contributed to Jared’s success.

You can read more about motivation and accountability and making health behavior changes in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.