After a strenuous workout, top athletes and everyday exercisers regularly reach for energy bars, protein powders, or recovery drinks, thinking that these dietary supplements provide boosts that normal foods do not.
A new study, however, finds that — when it comes to exercise recovery — supplements are no better than fast food.
The multi-billion-dollar sports supplement industry is a true behemoth. With catchy taglines and sparkling testimonials from top athletes, they’ve convinced millions of people to use their products. University of Montana graduate student Michael Cramer decided to find out if their claims of superiority stood the test of science, so he pit some of the most oft-used supplements, including Gatorade, PowerBar, and Cytomax “energy” powder, against a few of McDonald’s most vaunted contenders: hotcakes, hash browns, hamburgers, and fries.
…Though the research was solidly controlled, the findings are limited by the small number of subjects. Moreover, the results may not apply to less-trained individuals.
Source: Need to Recover from a Workout? Fast Food Is Just as Effective as Supplements
This isn’t all that surprising, as it’s a short-term study (1 pre and post-recovery workout for each diet) focusing on exercise recovery and glycogen recovery. Any high-glycemic carbohydrates will restore glycogen levels quickly following exercise so what form you take them in isn’t that important – when you just look at glycogen levels and short-term recovery. Long-term may be a different story though – the fast food diet may not enable you to maximize adaptations to exercise. Having said that you will still get the some (likely a lot) of the benefits of exercise. People who exercise do not suffer as much of the bad effects of a 1 week high-fat meal (source 1, source 2).
In terms of “as macronutrient content is the same then there shouldn’t be a difference”? Not necessarily, not all protein is equal (whey protein having the maximal increase on protein synthesis both at rest and following exercise). So 25 grams of whey protein should cause a bigger increase in protein synthesis than 25 grams of protein from a burger. It’s likely there’ll be differences in fat type (i.e. saturated vs unsaturated) as well.
This is what I think is most disheartening about the diet craze. Any effort placed on exercise and eating better has tremendous gains. Pop culture has instilled this idea that there’s a rigorous plan required to lose weight and stay in shape. Eating better doesn’t necessarily mean going vegan. It could be as simple as eating whatever you want but in smaller portions. Incorporating more fruits/veggies. Something, anything. Any exercise is better than no exercise. Even if it means going to the gym twice a week, that can be significant.