How much junk food (if any) is OK to eat?
While some people try to avoid any form of a sweet treat, salty snack or other form of so called “junk food”, others wonder how much they can eat without creating nutrition and health problems. For my clients, I suggest they enjoy a healthful sports diet that targets 85 to 90-percent of calories from quality foods and, if desired, 10 to 15-percent from “whatever.” Some days “whatever” might be carrots and other days it might be (guilt-free) carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. If you have trouble with eating too much junk food, the problem is not sugar and sweets but rather, you have likely gotten too hungry. You can resolve afternoon junk-food cravings by eating heartily at breakfast and lunch.
Given that you can ingest the recommended intake of all the vitamins, minerals, and protein you need within 1,500 calories from a variety of wholesome foods, a hungry athlete who consumes 2,000 to 4,000 calories a day has the opportunity to consume LOTS of nutrients. For example, 8 ounces of orange juice offers 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin C. A thirsty runner who chugs the whole quart can consume 4 times the RDA in that one snack. OJ is better than an all-natural vitamin pill! Hence, a few hundred calories of “junk food” has little negative impact in the context of the whole diet.
Should athletes try to avoid refined sugar?
Refined white sugar is a nutritional zero, void of any vitamins, minerals or protein. Yet, the calories in sugar come from carbohydrates. Muscles welcome these carbs to fuel depleted glycogen stores. Muscles don’t know the difference between carbs from juice, candy, and sports drinks vs. apple, sweet potato, and banana. The difference shows up in health, immune response, and ability to fight off colds and flu.
A rule of thumb is to limit refined sugar to 10% of total calories. For most active women, that equates to 200 to 250+ calories from sugar a day. And for active men, 250 to 300+ calories. That means, an athlete could consume either 16-ounces of a sports drink and a gel or enjoy a few cookies—and stay within the recommended sugar-budget for the day.
Note: The sugar is evil message is targeted to the 66% of Americans who are overfat and underfit, not to athletes. The muscles of athletes easily take up sugar from the bloodstream with far less insulin than needed by unfit people. Hence, unfit people who sip on Big Slurpees all day easily consume excessive, health-erosive sugar-calories. They need to seriously think about their future and if they want to be vibrant and healthy enough to enjoy fun times.
Wishing you the best of good health for today and the future,
For more information on how to enjoy a balanced sports diet: