Fueling on a Budget

author : Nancy Clark
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By Nancy Clark

Athletes get hungry. Hungry athletes need to eat ... a lot! For some people, this means consuming 3,000 to 4,000+ calories per day. For those with limited food money, the question arises: "Where can I buy the most amount of healthful calories for a reasonable amount of money?"

In this day and age when few athletes prepare and pack their own food, the standard practice is to fill up on fast 'n fatty foods that do indeed conquer hunger--but also clog arteries and leave muscles poorly fueled. Given that only carbs get stored as glycogen in the muscles (and glycogen depletion is associated with fatigue), fast food frequenters can sabotage their performance and experience needless fatigue. (That is, unless they overconsume soda pop—a source of carbs with no health value other than fuel.)

Let's say you're a 150-pound athlete who needs about 3,000 calories per day (1,000 calories per meal). You can buy the following 900 to 1,000 calorie fast food specials for a reasonable price, but they may well cost you the gold medal because about half of their calories come from fat; fat is inexpensive.

• 3 chocolate frosted cake Dunkin Donuts: 1,080 cals @ $2.15
• 2 servings Nachos Supreme from Taco Bell: 900 cals @ $3.40
• Big Mac and medium fries: 1,060 cals @ $4.45

As an athlete who shows responsibility by training hard, you'll miss the boat if you are irresponsible with fueling your hard worked body. You'll better reach your performance goals by investing in a daily diet based on wholesome carbohydrates: multi-grain breads, bran cereals, rye bagels, fresh fruits, orange juice, colorful vegetables. These foods not only fuel your muscles but they also offer health-protective vitamins and minerals.

Sometimes, for only a few more pennies, you can buy wholesome fast food carbs. For example, orange juice at McDonald's might cost you 8.5¢ per ounce; a soda, 8¢ per ounce (based on a medium size). A wheat bagel from Dunkin Donuts costs $0.89; only 18¢ more than a donut —but more carbs, less fat, similar calories. More often, good nutrition costs more. If you want to buy chicken instead of beef, you'll pay the price. A Big Mac (600 calories) is $2.79; a Chicken McGrill, $3.89 (400 calories).

So what's a hungry athlete-on-a-budget to do? Where are the sports nutrition bargains? The purpose of this article is to help you identify some of the better bets among fast foods; choices that offer a decent amount of carbs for a reasonable amount of money.

Breakfast Suggestions
The best food bargain is to eat breakfast at home or, when traveling, in your hotel. Simply pack along a plastic container with wholesome cereal, raisins (and a spoon), then buy milk at the corner store. (Note: buying store brands of cereal saves money: Kellogg's Raisin Bran costs $1.73 per 1,000 calories; the store brand only $1.25 per 1,000 calories.) Another breakfast option is to pack a cooler with multi-grain bagels, yogurt, and orange juice. You'll get 1,000 calories of premium nutrition for less than $3. If you insist on eating fast food, two decent options for under $3 are:
Dunkin' Donuts: Honey Bran muffin + small lowfat latte (600 cal)
McDonald's: Hotcakes + Small Fruit and Yogurt Parfait (750 cal)

Lunch & Dinner

The most nutritious sources of carbohydrates are fruits, juices and vegetables - but they tend to be costly for the amount of calories they provide. Fruits and veggies cost at least $4.00 per pound at a salad bar - and may offer inadequate calories (until smothered with salad dressing, that is.) A money-saving option is to buy apples, oranges, raisins, dried apricots, figs, juices (in boxes, plastic bottles) at a super market and pack them in your gym bag. Use them to supplement the following fast food best bets.
Burger King: Chicken Whopper (without mayo), Veggie Burger
McDonald's: McGrilled Chicken, Vanilla Cone, Egg McMuffin
Wendy's: Chili, baked potato (only a little topping), Frosty
Taco Bell: Burritos, soft tacos, gorditas, frajitas (w/o sour cream)
Papa Gino's: Spaghetti or penne with tomato sauce, bread sticks

Here's a calculation of cost per 1,000 calories of some fast foods. Value meals aside, the best fast food bargains can be found at Mexican (bean meals) and Italian restaurants (pasta). Taco Bell wins first prize! There, you can enjoy 1,100 (mostly healthful) calories from three bean burritos for only $3.30. Notice that supermarket snacks are a wise way to inexpensively boost your carbohydrate intake and supplement fast food meals.



% Fat    Cost/1000cals  
Dunkin Donuts Bagel35012%$2.57
Honey Bran Muffin49026%$2.42
Double chocolate cake donut31049%$2.29
Latte, small, whole milk+sugar16033%$11.19
McDonald's Big Mac60050%$4.65
Chicken McGrill40036%$9.72
Chicken McGrill without mayo30018%$12.97
Supersize Fries61043%$3.43
McFlurry, M&M91033%$2.86
Hotcakes, with syrup, no butter51012%$3.58
Orange juice, medium (16 oz)1800%$8.61
Taco Bell Bean Burrito37024%$2.95
Gordita baja, steak23027%$6.05
Soft Taco, chicken18020%$8.28
Papa Gino’s Pizza,1,00024%$4.50
Spaghetti 65015%$6.55
Spaghetti + 2 meatballs90529%$5.83
Supermarket Snacks
Yogurt, Columbo Cherry2208%$3.40
Granola bars, Nature Valley18030%$2.77
Teddy grahams (24 pieces)13027%$2.55
Fig Newtons, 211020%$2.42
Banana, large1500%$2.35
Burrito, frozen microwavable Tina's34024%$1.32


Copyright: Nancy Clark, MS, RD 2/04

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD offers private consultations to both casual exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston area (617-795-1875). Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Third Edition ($23) and her Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions ($20) are available by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Services, PO Box 650124, West Newton MA 02465 or via her website www.nancyclarkrd.com.


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date: December 12, 2004


Nancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.


avatarNancy Clark

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, an internationally known sports nutritionist and nutrition author, is a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in nutrition for exercise, health and the nutritional management of eating disorders.

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