Three Sports Nutrition Myths Busted
Updated: Apr 1
The internet is home to all sorts of nonsense that often strays into the field of nutrition in the form of misinformation. In this article, we bust three common myths pervasive in sports nutrition.
Currently there is an information paradox: it has never been easier to access information, yet this same freedom allows misinformation to proliferate faster than ever before. In essence, we are experiencing an infodemic, coined by the World Health Organization as the “…overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” (1).
It is this reality that allows nutrition myths to proliferate unabashed across the internet because when it comes to this topic, everyone's an expert. This is a huge problem: nutrition misinformation can be harmful, and warrants thorough debunking. With that in mind, let’s get on with busting some sports nutrition myths.
Myth #1: Fasted Workouts Burn More Fat
This is an interesting one, because there’s an element of truth to this claim. If you work out fasted, then yes, it is true that you will burn more body fat (as a % of total calories) than if you workout fed. However, studies that compare those doing fasted vs. non-fasted exercise—while keeping calorie intake roughly the same for both groups during the study period—show no significant advantage for overall fat burning or fat loss for the fasted groups (2, 3).
Why? Just because your body burns more body fat during the single workout, does not mean it burns more body fat over the whole day. If calories are equal between groups, the fed group will burn less fat during the workout, but more during the rest of the day. The opposite will be true for the fasted group (see Figure 1, below).
Figure 1. The fasted group (black bar) burned more fat at the time of the exercise session (shown by a lower RR: Respiratory Exchange Ratio) than the fed group, but at 12 and 24 hours after, the fed group burned more fat than the fasted group (shown by a lower RR) in a study from Paoli et al., 2011 (2)
Fasted workouts have no independent benefit for burning fat and are no better for fat loss than fed workouts if total daily calories are equated. If you enjoy training while fasted, do it! However, if you plan on performing your best, you should eat a high-carbohydrate meal before training.
Myth #2: You Must Eat Protein Within 30 Minutes of Training
This long-standing myth still rears its head every now and then. However, a meta-analysis—combining the results of 23 interventions—found that protein timing had no significant effect on muscle gain when total protein intake was accounted for (see Figure 2) (4). Essentially, this means that once you eat enough protein, the timing likely doesn’t matter. Indeed, another trial compared those having a protein shake before training to those having one after instead, and found no significant differences between groups for strength or muscle gain after 10 weeks of resistance training (5).
Figure 2. The (“Overall”) horizontal bar at the bottom of the graph represents the overall effect from all of the individual trials listed in the left-hand side of the picture, and indicates no significant difference for protein timing on muscle strength (also known as hypertrophy) because it crosses the (vertical) centre line of 0 (indicating no effect) (4)
Aim to eat a meal with a good amount of protein (~20–40 grams) within a few hours after training and you will be fine for muscle or strength gain purposes. It is a good idea to eat carbohydrates as soon as you can, though, to replenish your fuel stores (especially after a hard pitch session or match).
Myth #3: A High Salt Intake Improves Muscle Strength
This one is common in bodybuilding circles, but alas, is not based on any evidence. In a 2019 review paper that looked at 15 sodium-supplementation trials, the majority of trials found no significant benefit for athletic performance (6). There were some trials showing benefit in endurance athletes, and particularly in hot weather conditions, where consuming salt may help maintain fluid balance and therefore prevent endurance performance decrements (6). Other similar trials found no significant benefit, however.
Another recent review paper found no evidence for salt in the prevention or treatment of muscle cramps, again noting that sodium (salt) may be useful for maintaining fluid balance in endurance competition (7).
There is no evidence to suggest that salt can improve muscle strength. Salt may help maintain fluid balance when co-ingested with fluids during endurance exercise, and this may potentially improve endurance performance, although current evidence is mixed and weak.
Be careful with what you read online because most people talking about nutrition science are not equipped with the skills to sift through the bullshit. This can be especially true of the loudest voices online. Develop information hygiene and you will be less likely to be led astray.
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I hope you enjoyed reading. Until 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) Grimes DR. Medical disinformation and the unviable nature of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. PLoS One. 2021 Mar;16(3):e0245900. Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0245900
(2) Paoli A, Marcolin G, Zonin F, Neri M, Sivieri A, Pacelli QF. Exercising fasting or fed to enhance fat loss? Influence of food intake on respiratory ratio and excess postexercise oxygen consumption after a bout of endurance training. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011;21(1):48-54. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21411835/
(3) Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Wilborn CD, Krieger JW, Sonmez GT. Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):54. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4242477/
(4) Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Dec;10(1):53. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3879660/
(5) Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon A, Wilborn C, Urbina SL, Hayward SE, Krieger J. Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2017 Jan 3;5:e2825. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5214805/
(6) Heffernan SM, Horner K, De Vito G, Conway GE. The Role of Mineral and Trace Element Supplementation in Exercise and Athletic Performance: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(3):696. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6471179/
(7) Veniamakis E, Kaplanis G, Voulgaris P, Nikolaidis PT. Effects of Sodium Intake on Health and Performance in Endurance and Ultra-Endurance Sports. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(6):3651. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8955583/
Respiratory Exchange Ratio: This is the ratio between the metabolic production of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and the uptake of oxygen (O₂), and ranges between about 0.7 and 1.0. If your ratio is 0.7, you are burning mostly fat. If your ratio is 1.0, you are burning mostly carbohydrate.
Meta-analysis: This is a type of study that combines the results of a number of other studies that look at the same thing, and produces a summative estimate of the effect or association of what’s being studied. For example, a meta-analysis of five studies looking at smoking and lung cancer would combine the results from all five studies into one overall result, with the intention of providing a better estimate of the true effect of smoking on lung cancer.
Statistical significance: This is a term to describe the likelihood of whether a finding in a study is a “real” finding, or if it is the result of chance. Statistical significance is denoted by a p-value, which is usually set at a significance (alpha) level of 0.05. This means that if a result is significant at this level (p < 0.05), we can say that the probability of getting a value as or more extreme than the observed value (under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true) is less than 5%.
Information Hygiene: This is a healthy scepticism you should hold when reading information, particularly on the internet and from unqualified and/or unofficial sources. It involves careful evaluation of the information that one is consuming and sharing.