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No, Fast Food is not as Effective as Supplements for Recovery. Duh.

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | April 7, 2015

simpsons-funhouse-mirror-200x300A couple Nerd Herders (high-fives to Ben and Kevin) directed me to a bit o’ click bait floating around the interwebs lately claiming to bitch slap the “true behemoth” supplement industry via a study showing “when it comes to exercise recovery — supplements are no better than fast food.”

Unfortunately, there are flaws with this statement, the primary one being that it’s completely wrong.  The study does not actually show this and even if it did, the methodology is about as air tight as a circus balloon in a BB gun factory. The kids at the University of Montana who built the study either have zero understanding of sports nutrition or designed their little science fair project as deliberate blog fodder.

But first, the article, as reported in Real Live Science:

Cramer invited eleven highly trained male athletes to take part in the study. After fasting for 12 hours, all of them completed a rigorous 90-minute endurance workout. Subsequently, subjects assigned to fast food were given hotcakes, orange juice, and a hash brown, while subjects assigned to supplements were given Gatorade, organic peanut butter, and Cliff Shot Bloks. Two hours later, the fast food group consumed a hamburger, Coke, and fries, while the supplement group scarfed down Cytomax powder and PowerBar products. Two hours after their second meal, all subjects rode 20 kilometers on a stationary bike as quickly as possible.

A week later, they did it all over again. As it turns out, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of glycogen replacement and performance.

So, well, congratulations, I guess. Except not really.

Before we dig into the study, it’s important to note that the folks at Real Clear Science aren’t very “clear” about what exercise recovery means. It’s a broad term covering not just glycogen replacement but micronutrient replenishment (which we’re not going to cover today) and protein synthesis–or muscle building and repair. Glycogen replenishment tends to be the simpler of the three, making it low hanging fruit  for studies like this. Generally speaking, as long as you eat enough, the glycogen tends to take care of itself. That said, targeted glycogen replacement may be necessary when you’re dealing with repeated, prolonged endurance efforts, like the Tour de France.

On the other hand, strategic protein intake benefits just about anyone who works out. There’s no shortage of research showing how it can reduce recovery time and muscle soreness. Unfortunately, this study did not look at protein at all, therefore it did not look at overall exercise recovery in the way the media claims it did. If any of the journalists had bothered to read the study’s title, “Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery and Exercise Performance is Not Significantly Different Between Fast Food and Sport Supplements,” they’d see the scientists were just looking at a small section of the recovery story. And the tomfoolery wasn’t limited to one blog. Everyone from USA Today to the Washington Post went seriously funhouse mirror on the research, distorting it into appearing that the junk food industry is the key to extreme performance nutrition when, in fact, these companies are almost singlehandedly making our country so fat that we’re in danger of violating NAFTA by breaking off from Canada and Mexico and sinking into the ocean under the weight of our own butts.

Now, on to the study. The balance of carbs and protein you want in a recovery drink/meal varies depending your workout and physiology. Protein synthesis peaks at about 1-2 hours after exercise. So whichever balance you pick, you want a recovery drink/snack to absorb quickly so the dietary protein can break down into amino acids and be available to your muscles during the peak. With that in mind, the last thing you need in a recovery drink/meal is fat, which will slow absorption.

So what the hell were they thinking when they added peanut butter (which is about 66% fat calorically) to a recovery meal? And then they added Shot Bloks and Gatorade, which are purely intended for fueling during exercise. Those products don’t even pretend to be recovery supplements. So basically, they fed the athletes a crap load of sugar, some fat, and an almost imperceptible amount of incomplete protein. #lamestrecoverymealever

I’m educated-assuming the reason they did this was that they needed to match-up with the macronutrient levels of the fast food hotcakes, OJ, and hash browns. In all likelihood, they couldn’t find a decent protein source on the super value menu, so the only way to balance the study was to have all the athletes eat like obese 14-year-olds whose primary source of nutrition information is Mayor McCheese.

And then there’s that bizarre post-post workout meal with the powder and the bars. Any athlete in his or her right mind isn’t going to be “scarfing” down yet more supplements 2 hours later. The targeted nutrition window is closed. At this point, the Cytomax isn’t going to rapidly replace glycogen–that’s what the stuff a couple hours ago did. All it’s going to do is spike blood sugar, much like the Coke that the fast food group drank. In other words, the only question comparing a burger and Coke to mistimed supplements answers is “Which processed food would you rather eat?”

nhdc10hI know I’m being especially incendiary today, but the ethics of this study and its subsequent reporting are really messed up. These scientists know the importance of a proper macronutrient balance, so they clearly distorted their study to grab headlines. Furthermore, they know that the true negative impact fast food has on an athlete’s performance (not to mention overall health) doesn’t come from a couple Whoopers over a couple weeks. It comes from chronic intake. If you’re not getting the right vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, your recovery will suffer over time. It’s just not responsible to glorify junk food. Frankly, I’m baffled it even ended up in a proper journal.

And then for journalists to further twist it around so they can get clicks is just as nasty. I work for a big company with a big blog and we massage headlines sometimes, but we don’t deliberately lie and advocate unhealthy practices for the sake of building an audience. That’s P.T. Barnum kind of stuff. Sure, there’s a sucker born every minute. But hopefully, there’s a nerd born every 30 seconds. Sure, us nerds eat our share of garbage, but at least we’re savvy enough to recognize it as that: garbage.

So what are you, a sucker or a nerd?

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