SHOULD Athletes Be Eating Junk Food?

October 7, 2014

About the Author: Eric Bach

Today’s Guest Post comes Courtesy of Mike Samuels of in Southampton, England. Mike and I have collaborated on a few posts together in the past (here and here).

Mike has been everywhere lately and has one of the most interactive Facebook pages around. 
Anyways, I reached out Mike because he specializes on Nutrition and gets great results in a style that I ‘ve never tried– the “If it Fits your Macros” philosophy.

The flexible plan allows people to eat foods they enjoy even if they aren’t the cleanest option and still make gains in the gym. 
I was hoping to learn a bit more about the IIFYM and surely did from Mike. Personally,  I’m not a huge fan of eating junk in any instance.

That said, if your current eating style isn’t providing enough fuel to support your training needs then it could be beneficial to loosen the reigns and get a few more calories. 

Athletes: Why You SHOULD Be Eating Junk Food

Whoops, that’s bound to ruffle a few feathers.

And that’s kind of the point. I’m “that guy.”

The one who brags about being a reformed clean eater, posts pictures of ice cream on Instagram, and likes the fact I eat pretzels and cereal on a daily basis while staying lean and getting strong.

But the purpose of this article is not to slate those who eat clean, or follow rules-based diets.

It’s not a piece on the scientific flaws with Paleo, or how low-carb is a fad that needs to die out. Nope, you won’t find much in the way of diet-bashing here. Instead, we’ll be delving in to exactly why eating junk food is not only something you CAN do, but something you SHOULD do.

“So I should Be Eating Junk Food?”


That’s not to say you want to base your diet around Pop Tarts, sandwiches and cookies, but for an athlete, these kinds of foods are an integral part of a solid eating plan.

First up, let’s define an athlete.

Enter the Athlete

For the purposes of this article, an athlete is –

  1. Someone who competes in sport on a regular basis and at a high level.
  2. Someone who is seeking to improve their performance in the gym, either with the goal of competing in an event such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman or CrossFit, or who just wants to see gains in their strength, size and fitness.

I’m guessing most of you reading this will fall into one of these categories. Therefore, you’re an athlete.

So, why the hell then, when you’re looking to build a well-oiled machine of a body and reach the peak of your physical prowess, should you be eating crap?


Debunking the Ferrari Myth

My favourite expression of the clean eater when talking about junk food vs “clean food” is –

“You wouldn’t put budget fuel in a Ferrari, so don’t fill your body with poor quality food.”

First, we’re not high-performance sports cars – we’re people, so that analogy starts to crumble.

Second, your body can’t tell “food quality.” It knows when you’re eating protein, carbohydrate and fat, and it recognises and uses vitamins and minerals. The body doesn’t know is whether these macro and micronutrients are coming from bread or sweet potato, or whether you’re eating an apple or an apple pie Quest bar.

Third, we have the issue of how to define food “quality.”

To someone on the Paleo diet, a quality food will be one that’s non-processed, and isn’t a grain, legume or dairy product. A low-carber would define quality as any food low in carbs. To a vegan it’d be a plant-based product. Some might only buy organic and free range….. Can you see how not having a set definition of quality makes deciding what’s good and what’s bad very difficult.

Getting the Calories In

When training at a high level, you need plenty of calories.

No two ways about it – calories are your body’s fuel, and without them, you’ll struggle.

While individual calorie intakes will differ greatly, most of us will go through spells of training where we really need to cram in the calories.

As an extreme example, take Michael Phelps and his diet here. He is 6’7” , 194 lbs and trains for up to 7 hours per day, and shovels down insane amounts of food. While he has an insane training schedule 12,000 calories is still A LOT of food.


Imagine if Phelps tried to get all his calories from “clean food.” I dread to think how he’d feel. He’s probably bloated to high heaven as it is, getting a large proportion of his calories from pizza, mayonnaise and energy drinks.

I pity his stomach and his toilet if he got this many calories from just oats, broccoli and chicken breast.

You may not need that many (and in fact, almost certainly don’t!) But, take a guy who trains 5 or 6 days a week for an hour, works a fairly active job and wants to bulk up.

I’d wager you’d be looking at somewhere between 22 and 26 calories per pound of bodyweight each day. At 180 lbs, that’d mean you’d need between 3,960 and 4,680 calories every day.

Junk food would be your saviour here. Sure, you COULD eat 4,500 calories plus of clean food, but it ain’t gonna be pretty.
(Eric’s Note: And for most, damn near impossible)

The Post-Workout Nutrition Window

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different views on workout nutrition.

Some value it above all else, believing it to be the be all and end all, and that it’s the most important time of the day for getting in nutrients.

Others disregard it entirely, stating that total daily calories and macronutrients are the only important factor.

The truth is that it’s somewhere in the middle for the average trainer.

You don’t need super fast-digesting carbs and an isolated protein source immediately PWO, but then again, getting some protein and some carbohydrate around your workouts is probably a pretty good idea.

For an athlete however, nutrient timing matters a lot more.

Check out Alan Aragon’s nutrient timing continuum:

athletes should eat junk food


Image Courtesy of:


If you’re training a couple of times per day, involved in endurance sports, or events that last more than a couple of hours (track meets, powerlifting competitions, even perhaps longer lifting workouts) the importance of workout nutrition is bumped up a notch.

When talking workout nutrition, we’re mainly talking carbs.

And for glycogen-dependant events, or when you need to refill your muscle glycogen stores quickly, fast-digesting carbs are where it’s at.Junk food to the rescue. The ideal foods in this scenario are high-carb, (preferably easily digestible) with little fiber and little fat (both of which slow digestion.)

Again, you could go with the “cleaner” option of potatoes, white pasta or fruit, but for convenience, taste and the fact they’re generally higher in calories, processed carbs such as caramel rice cakes, fig Newtons,, Oreos, or that old favourite – chocolate milk, win out over more nutrient-dense carb sources.

Avoiding a Fiber Overload

Fiber is a good thing, no doubt about it.

It helps keep you regular, aids digestion, and a high fiber intake has been linked time and time again with a reduced risk of certain diseases such as cancer, IBS and diverticulitis.

However, you can have too much of a good thing.

Ramp that fiber intake up past an optimal level, and you’re at risk of several nasties:

–       Diarrhea

–       Nutrient malabsorption

–       Gas

–       Stomach cramps

–       Constipation

Looking back at our active 180-lb guy who’s bulking, he might be eating in excess of 500 grams of carbs per day.

Eating only clean foods, his fiber would easily top 100 grams if he’s getting in plenty of oats, brown rice, beans, fruits and veggies.

For anyone bar someone with the most cast-iron of stomachs, this will almost certainly start to cause some of the above symptoms of excess fiber consumption.

As a rule of thumb, you need between 10 and 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories, though most women will find it beneficial to set a cap of around 45 grams per day, and men at 60 to 70 grams per day.

If you’re cramming down the carbs, and looking to limit fiber, then refined junk food carbs are your key to not spending your life in the bathroom.

So I HAVE to eat Junk Food?

No, you don’t HAVE to eat junk food.

But, it shouldn’t be completely discounted as part of a healthy diet either.

Without even touching on the aspect of completely restricting junk possibly leading to an obsessive nature about eating “clean” and causing binge eating tendencies, this article has addressed the physical benefits of including junk in your diet.

The majority of your diet should still be based around nutrient-dense foods – lean meats, oily fish, dairy, vegetables, fruits and unrefined grains.

But there certainly is a place for junk food, and not only as a “treat” – if you’re training hard and looking to optimize performance and health, sometimes that tub of ice cream is actually better than your berries and broccoli.

Thoughts or Experiences where junk food has helped your gains?
Join the Discussion on Facebook:




athletes eat junk food

Mike Samuels works as a writer and online coach, based in Southampton, England. He is also a competing powerlifter. Mike loves lifting heavy stuff, helping people get shredded and drinking coffee.

Contact him at or

And check out his latest flexible dieting home study course –


Aragon AA. Continuum of nutrient timing importance (original schematic). NSCA Personal Trainers Conference. April 2012
photo credit: free range jace via photopin cc

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.