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Lou Schuler walks us through a sexy new study in “Why You Shouldn’t Eat a Big Mac After Today’s Workout.” The study compared commercial recovery foods, like Gatorade and PowerBars, to a rather paltry-sounding spread from McDonald’s (including small fries, and not claiming any syrup for the hotcakes). They structured the combinations of foods to offer roughly the same overall calories and proportions of major nutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein). And they worked their study participants pretty hard on some bike rides.

Remember the summer Olympics when everyone was flipping out about how Michael Phelps ate 12,000 calories a day? First, it was probably more like 8,000, but that’s still an immense amount of food, and that’s pretty much the story for people who do hard exercise, and hour after hour of it. You can eat a very virtuous and nourishing basic thousand calories or two, and after that, you just need plenty of protein and calories to keep you going. So at the end of a 50-mile bike ride, sure, feel free to stop at McDonald’s — just don’t scrimp on fiber- and vitamin-rich foods the rest of the day. Schuler’s advice is directed mainly at people who are not exercising the way these subjects were — that is, almost all of us!

But another part of this story is that sports-formulated foods are not magical, and, as Schuler points out, they are usually less convenient.

“The same results would be likely if you provided food items from Whole Foods or any farmer’s market. What we hope to get across is that recovery nutrition need not be overly complicated, and can include many diverse and unexpected macronutrient choices.” —study author Brent Ruby, PhD

The take-away from all this is the same as the take-away for products like Gatorade in the first place: you can certainly use these products in a heavy workout schedule, but in general these options are no better than food you (thoughtfully) prepare for yourself, and commercial options generally make it a lot easier to take in far more calories than you need.

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