The 1 Time You Can Eat Processed Foods, According to a Dietitian

POPSUGAR Photography | Anna Monette Roberts
POPSUGAR Photography | Anna Monette Roberts

Dietitians have been swearing off processed foods and urging their clients to do the same — but sports nutrition is a whole different beast. When you're working out intensely, training, or an endurance athlete, sometimes you need the extra sugar and simple carbs, but how do you do it in a way that's safe and healthy?

Super sports nutrition expert Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CSSD, LD/N, and owner of TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition, is an 11-time Ironman finisher and an Ironman coach. The board-certified sports dietitian introduced us to the concept of "unlearning healthy" when we were on a trip with Clif Bar last month for the Kona Ironman Championships. It was there she described that a healthy diet for an athlete is not necessarily the conventional meaning of "healthy."

It's not often you hear a dietitian telling you to eat "Eggos and maple syrup" or "white bread, not wheat." But these are special circumstances. Here's how Marni explains it.

"While high-fiber and high-grain foods are nutrient dense, a [simple carb] is energy dense, which means it packs a lot of calories per bite." She noted that the biggest takeaway for these foods, traditionally understood as "unhealthy," are easy to digest and thus ideal for someone working out more than an hour per day.

This doesn't mean "vending machine food and Cheetos," she said. But here are some examples:

  • Refined bread or pasta
  • Plain waffles, pita, and bagels (not high fiber/whole wheat)
  • Plain cereals, like Rice Krispies and Chex
  • Juices
  • Dried fruit
  • Honey and syrup

"These are fantastic sources of energy-dense foods that create little residue in the gut," meaning they're easy to digest and won't cause much digestive distress during your workouts.

Why do these foods work? "So that the athlete can consume energy to maintain good energy balance and to support hormonal and metabolic health," she said. The foods that we see as "healthy," like whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, etc., are not as easy for our bodies to digest during our workouts — they're bulkier, and they go through a slower digestion process.

When Can You Eat These Foods?

Around your workout schedule only.

"Athletes should understand that these foods, which may not appear healthy, are best consumed shortly before and after workouts," she told us. She noted the timing is crucial because of digestion. "Many of the foods I mentioned are ideal before and after workouts, as they are easy to digest and thus, even for a 10K runner to a marathon newbie, they may find great benefit in consuming juice instead of eating an apple or having a white plain waffle with butter and syrup instead of a whole-wheat, high-fiber piece of bread, as those things may digest easier."

"We have to redefine what is 'healthy' to the athlete who is expending so much energy and placing a lot of training stress on the body."

But keep this kind of diet to strictly to the time around your workout schedule! "Beyond that time, healthy foods, rich in fiber, healthy fats, quality protein, and veggies are ideal." So outside of your training time, back to big salads, lean meats, and the other healthy foods you'd usually eat.

When you're working out more.

These energy-dense foods come in best for when you're working out more than your usual amount. This typically means "workouts that last longer than 90 minutes, as that is the point when the body can be most compromised and is most stressed."

When your workout schedule is that heavy, Marni said, "This is also the time (and beyond) when the daily diet is no longer adequate to meet the energy demands for the workout, so we look to more energy-dense foods to provide energy to the body before and after the workout without causing GI [digestive] issues."

"These foods are ideal on high-volume days; typically 'high volume' is a workout that is three-plus hours. This wouldn't be applicable to most athletes, but some athletes will find that they have more energy and better recovery when they redefine what is 'healthy' on a higher volume training day," she said.

We know many of you aren't working out for an hour and a half each day, but these rules can still apply to you. Marni said, "Even if you are working out for 30 to 60 minutes, a pre-workout snack is ideal. But skip an apple and go for applesauce as it's easy to digest and shouldn't stress the belly before the workout."

When your appetite is suppressed.

Sometimes you're working out so much that you simply can't give your body the energy it needs. "For athletes, there are times in high-volume and peak training when calorie expenditure is so great that it becomes difficult to consume adequate energy before, during, and after workouts as well as throughout the day," said Marni.

Sometimes you're more tired than you are hungry, and sometimes you've lost your appetite from an intense workout.

Lack of appetite and hunger cues:

  • Feeling too full
  • Feeling tired and exhausted (often so much so that you can't eat or cook)
  • When training time takes the place of meal time (like when a workout from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. causes you to miss "breakfast")
  • Not craving certain foods

In these cases, think of how you'd eat when you're sick or have a stomachache — energy-dense foods like apple juice, plain white bread, or some applesauce. Get the nutrition in a way that won't agitate your stomach, and feed yourself in a way that doesn't expend more energy.