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I don’t know about you, but I actively fantasize about food while working out at the gym. Few things are more enjoyable than post-exercise recovery foods. Little did I realize that healthy supplements aren’t necessarily better for muscle recovery than something a little more indulgent.
A new study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism says building muscle isn’t as dependent upon diet as previously believed. Any devoted weightlifter will tell you that refueling muscles after a hard workout is serious business. Protein powders, bars, Gatorade, and various other healthy-ish food items litter lifters’ kitchen counters, just waiting to be devoured.
The key to a good post-workout recovery is replenishing muscles’ glycogen stores, which are a primary energy source during exercise. Food or sports drink should be consumed within 30 minutes of a hard workout. This new study says that — at least for glycogen purposes — fast food is just as effective refueling as healthier options. Both will help athletes build muscle equally as efficiently.
Glycogen is the most important form of energy used during a workout. Our livers do store a backup glycogen energy supply, but that backup method will only go so far. As a workout increases in duration, glycogen supplies are readily depleted. Depending on the intensity of a workout, glycogen stores can be used emptied at different rates. Running at a slower pace can prolong the depletion process for about 3 hours, whereas Olympic sprinters can burn through their glycogen stores in only 10 minutes.
What happens if you don’t refuel glycogen stores? Muscles can’t recover and increase in size. But muscles are persistent in their refueling strategy, so they’ll simply suck energy away at existing body structures (including bones) if energy from food isn’t readily available.
At any rate, this new study concludes that the most important factor in glycogen replenishment (and muscle building) is that some carbs are consumed after a workout. Researchers experimented with athletes, asking different groups consume a variety of foods after a 90-minute workout. Blood tests were used to test glycogen levels about 4 hours later. Those who ate energy bars and drank Gatorade had no better rate of glycogen and muscle replenishment than those who ate pancakes or a burger and fries.
The conclusion: Eating fast food will help you build muscle just as effectively as healthier workout supplements. The caveat: Fast food is still unhealthy in terms of caloric intake, fat and cholesterol content, sodium levels, and all of the other necessary evils. So yes, healthier food options are still preferable than fast food, but don’t look so guilty after eating those fries.