Updated: Nov 20
In the realm of sports nutrition, processed foods are not a boogeyman, and can be a helpful tool to help athletes meet their dietary goals.
If you read last week’s article, you know that just because a food is ‘processed’, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily ‘bad’. Here, we’re going to cut straight to the chase: processed foods can be beneficial for athletes. To reiterate from last week, we are not saying that people (or athletes) should stuff their faces with cakes, doughnuts, and cookies. What we are saying is that athletes will probably be better off eating some amount of processed foods rather than none.
Athletes need to eat more calories than non-athletes. This is intuitive; if you run for an hour, you will *burn more calories than if you watched tv. While this can be done with unprocessed or minimally processed foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, meat, etc.), certain athletes will struggle to meet their daily energy needs from such foods alone. That’s where processed foods can be helpful; they are often high in calories, are generally easy-to-eat, and can be eaten on the go. To give an extreme example, cyclists in the Tour de France can burn as much as 8,000 calories per day (1). There is no way they are going to be able to eat enough total energy if they don’t eat processed foods. Indeed, they frequently eat jam rolls, energy bars, and sports gels when on tour, and yet they still may not eat enough (1)!
*Note: when we burn calories through exercise, our body often compensates by reducing our non-exercise energy expenditure (e.g., by reducing involuntary movements like fidgeting). What this means is that if you burn 1,000 calories during exercise, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to eat exactly 1,000 calories more that day compared to if you didn’t exercise, although you will still need to eat more than usual. This phenomenon is explained by the Constrained Model of Energy Expenditure.
Most professional and semi-professional team sport athletes (including footballers) fall short of the recommended intake of carbohydrates (2). These athletes are leaving performance on the table, as carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel for moderate- to high-intensity exercise. How can processed foods help? Eating foods like bread, energy bars, and cereals can be an easy way to ensure you eat enough carbohydrates to perform and recover optimally.
While eating enough protein is less of a concern for athletes—because athletes tend to eat more total food than non-athletes and thus more total protein—there are times when a protein powder may be a pragmatic way to meet protein needs. For example, let’s say you have a late match on a weeknight. You come home and there’s no dinner and you have to be in bed soon to get up for work (or school) in the morning. Making a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder would be a smart choice here, ensuring you’re getting enough protein to repair your muscles, while also replenishing your muscle carbohydrate stores by eating fruit.
It is clear that processed foods can play a role in athletes’ diets. Once again, we are not encouraging a diet high in processed, or ultra-processed, foods. Rather, we are highlighting that there are scenarios—particularly for athletes training a lot—where processed foods can help athletes to eat enough calories, carbohydrates, and/or protein, which is crucial for performance and recovery. Maybe a helpful way to think about this is the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time you should seek to eat a diet high in unprocessed or minimally processed foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, healthy protein sources like beans, fish, etc.) and 20% of the time you could eat more processed foods. However, the exact split of this will depend on your individual circumstances such as how much you train, your individual energy needs, etc.
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Thanks for reading and see you next week!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Founder of Just Health — Instagram: @just.health.info
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Saris WH, van Erp-Baart MA, Brouns F, Westerterp KR, ten Hoor F. Study on food intake and energy expenditure during extreme sustained exercise: the Tour de France. Int J Sports Med. 1989;10 Suppl 1:S26-S31. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2744926/
(2) Jenner SL, Buckley GL, Belski R, Devlin BL, Forsyth AK. Dietary Intakes of Professional and Semi-Professional Team Sport Athletes Do Not Meet Sport Nutrition Recommendations-A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1160. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6567121/