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Is It Time to Swap That Energy Bar for a Big Mac?

A new study finds that eating fast food after a workout is just as good for you as a PowerBar.
(Photo: SteFou!/Flickr)

(Photo: SteFou!/Flickr)

Need some post-exercise fuel? Try a Whopper. No, seriously. Eating fast food after a workout is just as good as those fancy protein supplements, according to a new study.

Fast food often gets a bad rap, but when nutritional labels are compared, there's little difference between a Clif Bar and a Happy Meal. The researchers find that a hamburger, for instance, has roughly the same levels of calories, fat, carbs, and protein as a PowerBar Recovery (about 1,000 calories, 10 grams of carbs, and 12 grams protein).

"While fast food is often viewed as a barrier to the prevention and treatment of obesity in children, sensible menu items may offer a more economical approach to glycogen recovery compared to costly sports supplements," the researchers write in a recent edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

If all our muscles need is the simple macronutrients of each food, there should be little difference in outcome between commercially marketed workout food and McDonald's. Indeed, that's exactly what the researchers found.

The researchers find that a hamburger has roughly the same levels of calories, fat, carbs, and protein as a PowerBar Recovery.

The study required healthy male participants to perform an exhausting 90-minute workout. The participants were then fed either fast food or protein supplements immediately after the workout, and again two hours later. A series of measures were taken by the researchers, including an indicator of muscle growth, blood lipids, and glucose. On every measure, the two groups performed equally. Even on a questionnaire, both groups said they felt the same level of sickness or discomfort.

"Primary findings demonstrate that muscle glycogen recovery and exercise performance were not different when comparing products created specifically for sport recovery and traditional fast food," the researchers conclude. "These data are novel in demonstrating effective glycogen recovery benefits from fast food menu items comparable to products most often advertised as a practical option to optimize glycogen recovery."

While this may seem crazy, it's not all that out of the ordinary for bodybuilders. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously gorged on pies after workouts, and Michael Phelps inhaled whole pizzas while training for the Olympics (although he's since switched to a lower-calorie diet).

Protein bars and fast food are both are packed with processed sugar and fats, so perhaps they are both equally bad. And when it comes to muscle growth, the body isn't all that discerning; it simply needs food. Complicated formulas and fancy packaging might make it seem like there's a big difference, but this new study suggests that many gym hawks are just wasting their money.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.