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UM research: Burger, fries just as good as energy supplements

UM research: Burger, fries just as good as energy supplements

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Set the PowerBar aside and bring on the burger and fries from McDonald's.

A recent study conducted by the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism at the University of Montana concluded the fast food option, in a small dose, was just as effective for muscle recovery as energy bars and sports drinks.

Another study outcome? The lead researcher is getting more grief than gratitude from some fitness freaks.

"It's like I've committed some sports nutrition sin that people just can't get over," said Brent Ruby, director of the center at UM's Department of Health and Human Performance, and consumer of burgers after Iron Man competitions.

An article based on the study was published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, and Ruby knows what you're thinking. No, the research was not funded by McDonald's.

"If they did, I would have included big red shoes in the budget," Ruby said.

A representative of PowerBar did not respond Monday to a request for comment, but Ruby figured the sports bar manufacturers were talking internally.

"They probably talk about me behind their back all the time," Ruby joked.


When the research team at UM started talking about a "capstone" project testing sports supplements, Ruby said some researchers suggested weighing them against bagels and bananas.

Ruby, a triathlete who has led other studies at UM on athletic performance, had a different idea. The team could engage the fast food joint across from campus and avail itself of the chain's meticulously measured portions.

"The nice thing about McDonald's is the repeat-ability from one hamburger to the next to the next. And one small fry to the next to the next," Ruby said. "You can count on it. It's very consistent."

He also had an unlikely source of inspiration for the study: Comedian Jim Gaffigan's bit on McDonald's was on the back of his mind, and he knew the golden arches would raise the level of interest in an otherwise dry academic pursuit.

"As soon as you take something that is so far to the evil side of the sport nutrition spectrum, that's when it becomes interesting," Ruby said.

In the bit, Gaffigan says telling people he eats at McDonald's is like telling them he supports dog fighting: "How could you? McDonald's. It's fun telling people you go to McDonald's. They always give you that look, like, 'Oh, I didn't know I was better than you.'"

So in the UM research, a burger and small fries it was, and in particular, the stigmas attached to them.

"In contrast, the nutritional value and ingredient quality of sports supplemental food items goes mostly unchallenged because of marketing perceptions and a link to regular physical activity/exercise training," reads the article.


In two experimental trials, 11 active males cycled for 90 minutes at varying intervals, and then recovered for four hours. They consumed "macro nutrients" – either the sports supplements or fast food – at zero and two hours of recovery.

Then, the participants biked again, cycling 20 km as quickly as possible. The researchers analyzed muscle samples, blood, and a questionnaire filled out by the bikers. 

"Primary findings demonstrate that muscle glycogen recovery and exercise performance were not different when comparing products created specifically for sport recovery and traditional fast food," read the article.

The take-home message?

"Recovery nutrition doesn't have to be overly-calculated and complicated," Ruby said.

On the other hand, he said, energy bars are treated as healthy food, but they're not being sold at the farmers markets, either.

"Why do they get to claim health food status when they're as much a candy as they are a food, compared to other options?" Ruby said.


If you're ready to order piles of fries and juicy double cheeseburgers, don't do it on account of this study, Ruby said.

The outcome isn't meant to encourage people to eat more fast food, he said.

High maintenance endurance athletes like to talk about their recovery to draw attention to themselves, he said: "It's a sexy story."

However, he said their stories and popular press are riddled with layers and layers of fallacies. So the research team figured it could poke some holes in the theories.

"We thought, you know, I don't think it's that complicated," Ruby said.

Paid for by the center, the study confirmed the team's suspicion, showing some of the benefits of sports supplements are overstated when it comes to muscle recovery.

As Ruby sees it, recovery is simply about muscles requesting a refuel: "You asked me to work. I've done my job. Put some stuff back in the tank, dude."

But don't overdo it.


The fast food participants in the study ate more than burgers. At zero hours, they ate hotcakes and hash browns and drank a small orange juice from McDonald's.

Then, at two hours, they consumed a hamburger, medium coke, and small fries.

"The fat content that we had was relatively low for a fast food menu option," Ruby said. "Certainly, you could make really bad decisions and that could escalate really quickly at a fast food joint."

Ruby said he doesn't want to tell high school coaches to start taking their teams to McDonald's because the kids are likely to over indulge rather than choose small portions.

"High school kids are still stupid high school kids, and they're still going to want the big, gross stuff," Ruby said.

He himself is a fan of fast food at certain times, and he loves the "little hamburgers" at McDonald's. Note, the "little" hamburgers, not the monster ones, formerly "Super Size" burgers.

"I'm a fan of it when I feel like I need to have it," he said.

His favorite time to eat a burger is after a grueling athletic competition, Ruby said. Indeed, he downed a burger or three after his most recent Iron Man, in Hawaii, although McDonald's wasn't available.

"I think I had Jack in the Box," Ruby said.

A researcher at McDonald's passed on a message from the Missoulian to the fast food corporation's press people, who did not comment in time for this story. It was unclear at press time if the fast food spokespeople were rendered speechless at the study's results.

The study also included products by Clif Bar, Gatorade, and Cytomax.

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