Sep 29, 2017
Fast Food Best Choices
Lindsey Remmers

It’s easy to see why teams often flock to fast food restaurants when on the road. They are quick, convenient, and cheap. But what a lot of athletes don’t realize is that their food offerings can have a direct negative effect on performance.

Most fast food is void of many vital nutrients, and although it supplies the body with calories and energy, the type of calories can actually promote inflammation rather than fight it. If the majority of calories consumed are from high-fat burgers and French fries, athletes’ bodies may not perform optimally. Fatty foods take longer to digest, potentially leading to an upset stomach or “heavy” feeling when competing.

The general rule of thumb for everyday eating still holds true when consuming fast food. Athletes should be building their meals with mainly carbohydrates for fueling (baked potatoes, pasta, whole wheat buns/bread/hoagie rolls), fruit, a lean protein source (grilled or broiled meats, chicken, fish, eggs), and some vegetables wherever possible (side salad, veggies on a sandwich).

Healthy fast food options do exist, but not in abundance. There may only be two or three good choices at each restaurant, meaning that athletes may have to choose the same thing every time. That’s okay, as long as fast food isn’t their go-to for every meal during travel. We give our athletes the following guidelines, along with lists of approved restaurants and the healthier items to order:

Check the nutrition facts. Fast food restaurants are required to make nutrition facts available to their customers. Entire menus can be looked up online, and brochures or posters with nutritional information are often available in the restaurants. The main things to compare are calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.

Especially if eating near competition time, athletes should choose meals that are higher in carbohydrates (energy source) and low in fat (easier to digest). To determine the leanness of a menu item, athletes can look at the ratio of protein-to-fat grams or percentage of calories from fat. Here are the guidelines we give our athletes:

  • Three-to-one ratio or less than 30 percent: Go for it
  • Two-to-one ratio or 30 to 40 percent: Consider it
  • One-to-one ratio or more than 40 percent: Skip it.

Choose the least processed items. Processed foods have been altered from their natural state, which tends to make them less nutritious. For example, packaged white bread is made from refined white flour, meaning it loses most of its fiber and nutrients when the bran and germ of the grain are removed via processing.

Processed foods also tend to have longer lists of ingredients. A Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich from Chick-Fil-A isn’t just chicken, a bun, and pickle slices. In addition to 100-percent natural whole breast chicken filet, also listed are approximately 50 other items, including modified food starch, disodium inosinate, and calcium propionate. That’s a lot of “stuff” in one chicken sandwich. Typically, the longer the list, the more processed the food is.

We suggest that athletes skip the most processed foods. For example, instead of fries at Wendy’s, choose the whole baked potato. Or at Starbucks, choose the oatmeal instead of a scone.

Choose chicken. Fast food restaurants don’t use lean beef, so the fat content in a hamburger is higher and contains more saturated (unhealthy) fat than ground beef found at the grocery store. Eating two grilled chicken sandwiches from McDonald’s (700 calories, 84 grams of carbohydrates, 56 grams of protein, and 18 grams of fat) instead of one Angus Deluxe Burger (750 calories, 61 grams of carbohydrates, 40 grams of protein, and 39 grams of fat) offers more calories from carbohydrates and lean protein, along with less calories from fat, and would be the better option.

Skip the fried version. When choosing a sandwich or salad with chicken on it, go with the grilled option instead of fried. Frying chicken (or fish) means it will have more calories from fat instead of lean protein.

Order it your way. Never hesitate to request that the food be prepared in a certain way. The athlete is the one purchasing and eating the food, so he or she shouldn’t be afraid to ask for alterations so that the meal is healthier. For example, if an athlete is really craving a burger, he or she can keep it leaner by requesting no mayo, the bun untoasted (so it isn’t soaked in the fat on the grill), extra lettuce and tomato, and/or a side salad instead of French fries.

Lindsey Remmers, MS, RD, CSSD, LMNT, is the Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Nebraska.

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