Fueling With Fast Food

Face the facts: Most athletes eat fast food and they eat it often. Here are some tips on how to minimize calories and fat at the stop-and-go joint.

By Leslie Bonci

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, is Director of the Sports Medicine Nutrition Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, and a consultant to the University of Pittsburgh Department of Athletics, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and several Pittsburgh-area high schools.

Training & Conditioning, 11.9, December 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1109/fastfood.htm

After a long competition, your cross-country team boards the bus for the two-hour trip back to your school. Both you and your athletes are tired and very hungry. Thinking about a post-competition dinner, your mind conjures up a salad of green-leaf lettuce and Belgian endive topped with sweet red pepper slices and sprinkled with balsamic vinegar, black pepper, and a touch of olive oil. For the main course, perhaps slices of sautéed sugar-snap peas and chicken breast with a nice pasta.

Get real. You know that you'll end up eating fast food.

In this fast-paced, tightly budgeted world, fast food is the natural choice for sports programs that haven't the time nor the money for a sit-down meal in a full-service restaurant. Yet, despite fast food's popularity, the pros and cons of eating fast food are often neglected in efforts to educate athletes about the importance of optimal fueling for sport.

Most nutrition education efforts focus on wholesome meals while avoiding the reality that many athletes eat fast food on a regular basis. This article examines the world of fast food and provides some recommendations to guide your athletes as they make fast-food choices on road trips or when hanging out with friends.

Fast food is, as the name implies, fast. For teams on tight schedules and athletes on the go, fast food offers convenience, quick service, and lower prices than traditional restaurants. Moreover, most American athletes literally grew up with fast food and they are comfortable eating it.

The good news is that many fastfood chains are expanding their menus to incorporate a greater variety of more nutritious, lower-fat foods such as salads, baked potatoes as an alternative to French fries, meats that are grilled rather than fried, and frozen yogurt in addition to ice cream.

The bad news is that a large share of the menu choices in fast-food establishments is still quite high in fat and calories. For the athlete who needs to gain weight, this is not so bad. However, for the weight-conscious athlete, fast food presents a significant caloric challenge.

In addition, many fast-food portions are getting larger in an effort to lure more customers away from competing restaurants. Unfortunately, as the sizes of the burgers and the portions of the fries increase, the fat and calorie counts of those portions climb as well.

Bigger portions of high-calorie foods present more challenges than weight-control alone. After exercise, eating higher-fat foods without adequate carbohydrates can delay muscle glycogen resynthesis. Eating high-fat foods before competition can lead to a feeling of heaviness, sluggishness, or even digestive upset. Few athletes will be able to put forth a maximum effort when they have the sensation of a paving brick sitting in their stomachs.

Further, fast foods tend to be high in sodium, which can impede an athlete's performance. Too much sodium can exacerbate dehydration, cause nausea, and increase fluid requirements. At a fast-food establishment, the problem of increased fluid requirements may be compounded because the majority of beverages served are carbonated. Carbonated beverages can create a false sensation of fullness--and an athlete who washes down a high-sodium meal with soda may not drink enough fluid.

Do these negative issues mean that athletes should avoid fast foods? Absolutely not. Not all fast-food choices are laden with fat and salt. Moreover, an occasional fatty meal won't hurt a healthy athlete. So what recommendations can you give your athletes? First, make them aware of some general guidelines for ordering fast food. Then, educate them about the impact that individual menu choices will have on their overall intake of calories, fat, and sodium.

The main objective in educating your athletes about fast food-menu choices is to help them reduce fat and calories when ordering. Advise them to steer clear of products with words such as grande, supreme, monster, super, king, combo, or big in their names. A monster-sized fast-food entree typically translates into a monster-sized portion of fat, calories, and sodium. Here are some other guidelines for avoiding or reducing fat when ordering fast food:

• Ask for sandwiches with mayonnaise on the side, then use it sparingly.
• Look for the lower-calorie salad dressings.
• Request gravy, sour cream, and butter on the side, and use it sparingly.
• Limit your order to one fried food per meal. For example, instead of ordering deep-fried chicken nuggets and fries, order fried chicken and mashed potatoes, or a grilled chicken sandwich with fries.
• To keep calories in check, order regular-sized drinks and fries instead of large.
• Choose pizzas with thinner crusts, if possible. If the choice is there, opt for vegetables on the pizza instead of meats or extra cheese.
• If you are hankering for beef, order a regular burger instead of a cheeseburger. Most cheeses are extremely high in fat.