Yes, Happy Meals, according to recent research, make for a surprisingly effective post-exercise meal. But the real takeaway has nothing to do with the Golden Arches: real food—not expensive bars or scientifically formulated shakes—is almost always best.
If McDonald’s is looking for a way out of its image as painfully unhip, outdated, and unhealthy, Brent Ruby might have a suggestion: The Happy Sports Recovery Meal.
Take a plain burger and medium Coke. Yes, you can have fries with that. Then advertise that the meal works just as well for recovery as fancy fitness food. As an added benefit, the marketing would actually be backed by science.
Ruby, a runner, former Ironman triathlete, and University of Montana exercise physiologist, is the brains behind a new study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism that shows no discernible performance difference between tearing into a recovery PowerBar and ending your workout at the Golden Arches. For a man who clearly relishes playing the iconoclast, the results were sweet confirmation of what he long suspected.
“There’s nothing overly magical about any of the sport nutrition products except that they are marketed very well,” Ruby says. "I've always kicked around this idea that regular food is just as good. It’s just nobody has used it for glycogen studies.”
To put his hunch to the test, Ruby took 11 guys and put them through the ringer. Each rode a stationary bike for 90 minutes, to the brink of exhaustion. Immediately after the workout, they ate either the McDonald’s meal of hotcakes, hashbrowns, and a small orange juice, or the sports food: Gatorade, Clif Shot Blocks, and Clif Bar's Kit's Organic PB bars. Then they had a second snack two hours later of either of a burger, Coke, and fries, or Cytomax, PowerBar Recovery drink, and PowerBar Energy Chews. Meanwhile, Ruby sampled their blood and took slivers of muscle from their thighs to see how much glycogen—the key muscle fuel during intense exercise—was in the tissue. Finally, they climbed back onto the bike four hours after the first workout and rode as hard as they could for 20 kilometers. A week later, each person returned to repeat the process, this time eating the food they hadn't tried before.
The results were clear. Blood glucose and insulin response—a gauge of how the body responds to food—were the same. The amount of glycogen replenished in the muscles was the same. Performances in the 20K time trial were almost identical.
For Ruby, it’s a satisfying debunking of food snobbery crossed with hype. He said he heard from colleagues who cringed at the idea of McDonald’s as recovery food. “The fact that I'm creating this controversy with my colleagues, I love it."
Stacy Sims isn’t horrified by Ruby’s findings, but cautions that it doesn't present the whole picture. Sims, an exercise physiologist and nutritionist affiliated with Stanford University and a founder of the sports hydration company Osmo, says she’s a big proponent of real food versus “engineered” sports food. But the new study’s focus on glycogen replacement overlooks other components to recovery, she says. Additives and preservatives in fast food could cause problems in ways that don’t show up in the study. She also emphasizes a more protein-heavy meal right after a workout (20 to 25 grams for men, up to 30 grams for women) to help reduce inflammation and rebuild damaged muscles.
“For a one-off, fast food isn’t that detrimental,” says Sims, who has made headlines for critiquing many sports drink products as ineffective. “But if your go-to recovery food is processed and refined stuff, then it becomes an impact on recovery and health.”
It’s worth noting that many packaged sports foods also fall into that “processed and refined” category. For that reason, Sims advocates eating real food for recovery as much as possible. Think: yogurt, or a turkey sandwich. The engineered sports food phenomenon is a very American thing, she says. In Europe, for example, she doesn't see many PowerBars or other packaged sports foods for sale. When people are hungry—including athletes—they’ll eat a sandwich rather than a bar.
Ruby says he doesn’t mean athletes should head to the nearest burger joint and pig out. In his study, he chose items from the McDonald’s menu that met some basic recovery guidelines: mostly carbs, a little protein, and enough fat so that his test subjects would eat a similar amount of calories to those eaten in comparable recovery meal studies, or about 1,300 calories.
The new findings are part of a broader movement in sports nutrition toward real food. Think of it as the low-brow version of the The Feed Zone Cookbook —the decidedly more gourmet tome by physiologist Allen Lim and Biju Thomas, formerly a chef for the pro cycling teams.
For Ruby, the key to a healthy recovery meal for athletes is to keep things varied and interesting, listen to what your body is craving, and don’t feel ashamed if that involves a trip through the drive-through. For him, sometimes it’s a Snickers bar, other days, a lamb burger at one of his favorite restaurants. “There is not,” he says, “one single recovery diet that is optimal all the time.”