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As a cyclist, you know you need a well-balanced diet to fuel your hard workouts and long rides. And while fast food might not be your go-to for fueling up, you can actually find plenty of healthy fast food to pick up in a pinch, whether you need some grub preride or post.
Fast-food restaurants haven’t always been known to have healthy options. Multiple
studies confirm the correlation between weekly consumption of fast food and weight gain and obesity. But the good news: As a possible response to this research-backed link, many fast-food restaurants have added healthier options to their menus, making it easier for everyone to choose nutrient-dense dishes. Plus, you can find calorie counts and nutritional calculators on many menus and websites to check what you’re eating.
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“The one thing about fast food that’s positive is that you do have choices,” says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., adjunct professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “When we think of fast food, we think triple burgers, fries, shakes, and those really are no-nos.” Young says cyclists can have more calories than the average person because they are very active, but it’s important to consider what you order, the nutrients in those dishes, and not to overindulge too much.
On the other hand, registered dietitian, cyclist, and co-author of the book Plant-Based Sports Nutrition, Matt Ruscigno says, “I’ve worked with athletes who need upwards of 8,000 calories a day and so a couple of French fries isn’t going to hurt.” Like most diet choices, it comes down to what your body needs and eating most things in moderation.
What’s more important, Ruscigno says, is that you develop a basic understanding for nutrition and food to successfully energize your body for your workouts. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans published in 2020, most adults ages 19 to 59 need to eat between 1,600 and 3,000 calories a day. But in general, your calorie intake is going to depend on your age, gender, and activity level.
“For me, I just try to feel it out based on what my workouts have looked like, how hungry I am, where my body weight is, and where my energy levels are,” says Ruscigno. “That does sound complicated, but when you’re doing this a lot of it is actually easier than counting numbers.” Translation: Listening to your body is the way to go when it comes to ordering. But here’s what to know about buying healthy fast food.
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What should I keep in mind when ordering fast food, particularly around the time of a ride?
When it comes to eating fast food, it’s extremely important to figure out what works best for you, especially when determining what you eat before a ride, during a ride, and after a ride.
“Before a ride, you don’t want to have greasy high-fat foods, which are harder to digest. That’s going to cause indigestion. You are going to want to have more simple sustainable carbohydrates,” Young says.
A couple things to keep in mind if you’re picking up a healthy fast-food meal or snack:
>Consider whether you need salt. Fast-foods are high in salt, which can be good for you if you have a long, sweaty ride on the books. (Keep in mind, some people might need to avoid having too much sodium.) “You want to have electrolytes like potassium and sodium. Sodium is never a problem at fast-food spots—any place you go, you’re going to get your sodium for sure,” says Young.
>Avoid foods that are deep fried or described as crispy. “The word crispy is a giveaway for deep fried,” Young says. As Young mentioned, these foods can cause a lot of discomfort if eaten before a ride, so if you really want ’em, save fried foods for after.
>Load up on carbohydrates. Carbs are a great source of energy, especially whole grains. And surprisingly, you can find a ton of whole grain foods at fast-food restaurants. Try ordering brown rice instead of white or a whole grain tortilla.
>Don’t overdo it on fiber. Fiber is certainly good for you, as it helps move things along the digestive tract. But too much fiber can lead to cramping in the middle of your workout, says Young. Keep levels low before you start biking, but don’t cut fiber out of your diet completely. According to the Mayo Clinic, women should eat 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day and men about 30 to 38 grams per day.
>Avoid too many added sugars before a ride. You need some sugar to supply you energy as you ride, but you don’t want too much beforehand because it can cause your blood sugar levels to spike, and then crash—along with your energy. Young suggests avoiding any beverages that are high in sugar, like soda.
>Eat lots of vegetables. Young says it’s always good to add vegetables to your meal preride or post. But having a healthy fast food meal with veggies before a ride can help you stay hydrated, plus they offer some of those coveted carbs for energy.
If you’re picking up a healthy fast-food meal postride, then you can probably enjoy a lot of things you ate in moderation or didn’t eat at all beforehand. But, don’t forget to eat lots of carbs, as they play a strong part in how you source your energy. “We hear a lot about protein, but carbohydrates are super important after a workout because there’s a window where you replace the glycogen that you’ve burned,” says Ruscigno.
What are the best healthy fast-food options for cyclists?
McDonald’s Egg McMuffin
The next time you go to McDonald’s consider ordering an Egg McMuffin. Unfortunately, McDonald’s doesn’t offer all day breakfast anymore, but you can grab this sandwich before or after your morning ride. Young says eating an egg McMuffin is a good source of protein and carbohydrates—it has 17 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs—that you will need to stay energized during your ride.
Taco Bell Beef Taco
Get your taco fresco style to make it a healthy fast-food option, says Ruscigno. That means they add tomatoes, a veggie that’s great for your overall health thanks to its high antioxidant content. Taco Bell’s beef taco also has 9 grams of protein making it a great option for muscle building. It also comes with lettuce, cheese, and a wheat tortilla—a solid source of carbs.
“Oatmeal is a nutritional powerhouse for bikers,” says Young, as it’s packed with carbohydrates and fiber. Considering your muscles and brain run on carbs, and you need a lot of energy to fuel your longer rides, oatmeal is a great choice preride. The classic oatmeal at Starbucks has 5 grams of protein and 28 grams of carbs. Add your choice of dried fruit, nuts, or brown sugar for more flavor and even more simple carbs.
Burger King Single Hamburger
“If you must have your burger, do a single,” Young says. Eating lean beef has been shown to have some heart-health benefits, according to research. But moderation is key as Young suggests. So consider ordering a single hamburger from Burger King—rather than a double Whopper—as it has 13 grams of protein and nearly 30 grams of carbohydrates that your body will turn into energy.
Chipotle Burrito Bowl
The next time you’re at Chipotle order a bowl of brown rice with chicken, fajita veggies, and a half of serving of guacamole for some healthy fast food. “This dish is a perfect combo of protein, carbs, and heart-healthy fat, which is perfect for cyclists,” Young says. “And the fiber from the rice, veggies, and guac can keep you satiated for a longer ride.”
Arby’s Roasted Chicken Salad
Order a roasted chicken salad from Arby’s, because it’s filled with protein—25 grams to be exact—and vegetables. “Any chance to sneak in some veggies is good,” says Ruscigno. The salad comes with bacon, tomatoes, cheese, and ranch dressing. The lettuce not only offers up some vitamins and minerals, but the water can add to your hydration levels too.
Panda Express Teriyaki Chicken
Order the teriyaki chicken, with steamed white rice and super greens. This dish is perfect to order preride or post. “The protein in the chicken, and the fiber in the rice and greens helps stabilize your blood sugar, so you can keep riding without being hungry,” says Young.
Chick-Fil-A Grilled Chicken Sandwich
This list wouldn’t be complete without Chick-Fil-A. Obviously you’ll go for chicken here but opt for a grilled chicken sandwich. It leaves off the extra breading and deep fried, greasy chicken, and keeps the healthy dose of protein plus some carbs from the bun.
Panera Bread Turkey Chili
Panera Bread’s turkey chili with beans serves up a great source of protein because you are getting it from both the beans and turkey. “This dish will help to sustain you and keep you satisfied while riding due to the protein and fiber content,” Young says.
While Domino’s has always been known for pizza (and hey, have pizza when you want it!), they do have other options that can help you fuel your ride—for example, the pasta bowls. Consider ordering the pasta primavera. Although this dish does have a lot of calories, it’s packed with vegetables including fresh baby spinach that boasts plenty of vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy.
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