The fitness industry is prone to promoting simplified, two-sided arguments to extraordinarily complex topics. For example, foods are often labeled “healthy” or “unhealthy,” with little nuance added along the way. After all, broad labels are convenient, and critical thinking takes both time and effort.
You might be “eating clean,” and are “being good,” or you’re “off the wagon” and “being bad.” But the truth here is that food — like health — can’t be classified in a binary system like this.
Many athletes have a hard time fueling themselves properly, especially when eating on the go or training multiple times per day. In these cases, some of the foods you may have already dismissed as “unhealthy” could mean the difference between adequate recovery or letting your nutritional needs go wanting.
Here are 10 “unhealthy” food options that are surprisingly beneficial to your athletic needs. But first:
What Makes a Food “Healthy” (or Not)?
According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) a healthy diet protects against malnutrition and certain non-contagious diseases such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. (1) Their broad recommendations include:
- Eating five servings of fruits and non-starchy vegetables per day.
- Consuming less than 10% of calories from sugar (either added to food or naturally-occurring in honey, fruit juice, and syrups).
- Consuming less than 30% of calories from fats, and less than 10% of calories from saturated fats.
- Taking in less than 5,000mg of sodium per day from all sources.
- Limiting trans fats as much as possible (to less than 1% of calories).
The so-called healthfulness of a food can’t be determined in isolation; it needs to be considered in the context of the entire dietary pattern and the needs of the athlete consuming it.
Though certain foods are high in sugar, fat, sodium, or trans fats, your best practice isn’t to exclude them entirely, but to fit them into a dietary pattern that meets your energy and micronutrient needs.
For example, a sedentary person eating 2,000 calories per day could consume 180 calories (or 9%) in the form of sugar — roughly the equivalent of a can of regular soda — while meeting the WHO’s recommendations. On the other hand, a triathlete burning 6,000 calories in a day would have eaten just 5% of their calories from sugar after ingesting two cans of regular soda.
No single food can promote or protect against malnutrition or chronic disease, so labeling single foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” simply causes confusion and unnecessary restriction. (2)
While organic, whole-food meals should make up the bulk of your diet (no matter what your preferred athletic discipline), you stand to gain little by viewing foods as simply “bad” or “good.” It’s all about context.
Eating for Health vs. Eating for Performance
There’s no way around the fact that people who exercise vigorously will have different dietary needs than the general population. Lifting heavy, running long distances, or competing in a physique sport all necessitate that you fuel yourself properly for the tasks they present.
Eating for Health
Even if you’re an athlete, your overall health has a huge impact on your performance. As such, it makes plenty of sense to eat a high amount of whole, nutrient-dense foods, whether you’re active in the gym or not. You need fiber, vitamins, and minerals the same as any other person.
Eating for Performance
On the other hand, athletes have to meet extremely high quantitative dietary demands, mostly surrounding their energy balance needs. Getting enough calories (and the right proportion of macronutrients) is always a challenge, and that’s before you factor in any lifestyle or scheduling issues.
Therefore, you shouldn’t write off “low-quality” foods if your diet is meant to fuel your athletic performance. The proper combination of lightly-processed, nutritious foods coupled with more dense, high-calorie meals can benefit your training sessions tremendously. (4)
The 10 Best “Unhealthy” Foods for Athletes
There’s a litany of possible “bad” foods out there that come with surprising perks to strength or physique enthusiasts. Here are a handful of foods that deliver a hefty load of easy-to-digest carbs — along with protein and sodium in some cases — to fuel your performance during intense workouts.
Before Your Workout: Fast-Digesting Carbohydrates
Your training sessions are only as productive as the fuel you power them with. If you exercise early in the morning (after a long night of fasting), or work out twice per day, you stand to benefit greatly from low-fiber, low-fat, fast-digesting carbohydrates to enable high-intensity exercise. (4)
Endurance athletes in particular stand to benefit here from indulging in unhealthy snacks. You don’t want to run into the bothersome combination of fatigue and brain fog if your muscle glycogen runs dry, forcing your liver to produce glucose as fuel.
Here are a few pre-workout options that might work for you:
- Sugary Cereal
- White Bread
- Gummy Candies
- Sugary Juices
During Your Workout: Energy-Dense Carbohydrates and Sugars
Even dedicated weight lifters should prioritize their endurance. Beyond that, extreme endurance activities — think triathlons and cross-country skiing — require more than just carbohydrates to keep up with peak energy demands. (4)
To keep your engine running smoothly and as long as you need it to, you should turn to solid food options that provide calories, carbohydrates for glucose production, and sodium.
Note that it may take you a bit of time to adjust to the gastrointestinal and digestive shock of eating these kinds of foods intra-workout, but in small quantities they can be extremely potent. You can try:
- Toaster Pastries or Pop Tarts
- Potato Chips
- Cereal Bars
Post-Workout: The Right Macros for Recovery
Fortunately, your post-workout nutrition needs aren’t as rigid or as time-sensitive as fueling yourself before or during your training sessions. Make no mistake, though — that doesn’t mean post-workout nutrition is any less important. If anything, the opposite is true.
You might be surprised to learn that hitting the drive-thru for some fast food, or chugging down a carton of chocolate milk, can be as effective as ingesting a protein shake for replenishing glycogen and kickstarting protein synthesis. (5)(6)
Chocolate milk and hamburgers provide a combination of fast-digesting carbs and complete proteins, and are more energy-dense than the classic whey protein shake or chicken and rice due to their high fat content.
- Chocolate Milk
- Fast Food Burger Combo
While there’s nothing wrong with the lower-calorie options, they may not be the best fit for athletes with higher energy demands. Plus, when it comes to eating on the go with limited food options, fast food is likely superior to skipping a meal and going into your training session underprepared.
The Myth of “Clean” Eating
Blanket categorization of foods as either “bad” or “good” — as though they’re a moral decision of some kind — often goes hand-in-hand with perceiving your eating habits as either “clean” or “dirty.” However, the scientific community has come to draw strong lines in the sand about the merits of such an approach.
Everything (Yes, Everything) in Moderation
A dietary pattern based on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and minimally-processed animal products (as opposed to exclusively processed meats) can protect against a myriad of diseases, but the inclusion of refined carbohydrates and processed snacks in moderation won’t negate the benefits of a prudent dietary pattern. (1)(2)
In some cases, athletes with high energy demands might need to include these convenient, high-energy snacks to prevent chronic relative energy deficiency. (4) Put simply, you might find it difficult to hit your calorie or macro goals if you’re too much of a purist about what you ingest.
“Clean” Eating & Disordered Behavior
However, it’s not uncommon for someone’s “healthy eating” commitment (often undertaken in good faith and with good intentions) to evolve into a more restrictive, potentially orthorexic approach to food.
Though it lacks a formal definition, “clean eating” usually involves adhering to a dietary pattern consisting of minimally-processed foods, ostensibly due to their perceived superiority to more processed options. (8)
Orthorexia is a maladaptive preoccupation with health-related foods and behaviors, characterized by high levels of rigid dietary restraint and strict classifications of foods as either healthy or unhealthy. Though on the surface it may seem like a reasonable approach, orthorexia as a dogmatic approach to food actually falls on the spectrum of disordered eating. (2)(8)
Binary thinking and inflexible approaches to food (like labeling foods as “clean” or “off-limits”) may predispose you to develop an eating disorder. Not to mention that these behaviors may create practical issues like chronic underfueling that hampers your performance overall.
Your body is complex and nuanced — there’s no good reason to paint with broad strokes when thinking about your nutrition.
The Whole Plate
As an athlete, your needs can go beyond that of the general population. Long, grueling training sessions demand high calorie intake and specific macro (and micro) nutrient compositions at critical moments.
With both quality and quantity-based needs in play, a restrictive ideology about food won’t do you any favors in the long term. No single food, meal, or diet plan can reliably bulletproof your health. Don’t discard certain foods without a second thought — you should approach your nutrition with as much delicacy and care as you give to your programming.
Whole foods, fruits, and vegetables should make up the bedrock of your diet as an athlete, sure. But a Big Mac can do a lot for you in a pinch, and a handful of gummy bears might help you bang out that last set of back squats on your next leg day.
- World Health Organization, “Healthy diet.” https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet
- Helms, E. R., Prnjak, K., & Linardon, J. (2019). Towards a Sustainable Nutrition Paradigm in Physique Sport: A Narrative Review. Sports, 7(7), 172.
- Wiffin, M., Smith, L., Antonio, J., Johnstone, J., Beasley, L., & Roberts, J. (2019). Effect of a short-term low fermentable oligosaccharide, disaccharide, monosaccharide and polyol (FODMAP) diet on exercise-related gastrointestinal symptoms. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 1.
- Kerksick, C. M., Wilborn, C. D., Roberts, M. D., Smith-Ryan, A., Kleiner, S. M., Jäger, R., Collins, R., Cooke, M., Davis, J. N., Galvan, E., Greenwood, M., Lowery, L. M., Wildman, R., Antonio, J., & Kreider, R. B. (2018). ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y
- Henselmans, M., Bjørnsen, T., Hedderman, R., & Vårvik, F. T. (2022). The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 14(4), 856.
- Ruby, B. C., Cramer, M. J., Dumke, C. L., Cuddy, J. S., & Hailes, W. S. (2015). Fast Food Results In Similar Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery And Exercise Performance Compared To Sport Supplements. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 47(5S), 340.
- Pritchett, K., Bishop, P., Pritchett, R., Green, M., & Katica, C. (2009). Acute effects of chocolate milk and a commercial recovery beverage on postexercise recovery indices and endurance cycling performance. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 34(6), 1017–1022.
- H. Natenshon, A. (2020). Discretion or Disorder? The Impact of Weight Management Issues on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disordered Eating and Clinical Eating Disorders. In Weight Management (Vol. 32, Issue tourism, pp. 137–144). IntechOpen.
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