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Fueling on a Budget: Making Smart Choices on the Cheap

By Nancy Clark
For Active.com

Athletes get hungry. Hungry athletes need to eat ... a lot! 

budget 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 over-consume soda pop--a source of carbs with no health value other than fuel.) 

Let's say you are 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, and 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 doughnut--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 low-fat latte (600 cal), McDonald's Hotcakes + Small Fruit and Yogurt Parfait (750 cal).

Lunch and 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 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 or juices (in boxes, plastic bottles) at a supermarket 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

Cost/Calories

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 (among the fast-food places profiled here)! 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.

Food/Calories/% fat/Cost per 1,000 cals 

Dunkin Donuts

  • Bagel: 350/12%/$2.57
  • Honey Bran Muffin: 490/26%/$2.42
  • Double chocolate cake donut: 310/49%/$2.29
  • Latte, small, whole milk+sugar: 160/33%/$11.19

McDonald's

  • Big Mac: 600/50%/$4.65
  • Chicken McGrill: 400/36%/$9.72
  • Chicken McGrill without mayo: 300/18%/$12.97
  • Supersize Fries: 610/43%/$3.43
  • McFlurry, M&M: 910/33%/$2.86
  • Hotcakes, with syrup, no butter: 510/12%/$3.58
  • Orange juice, medium (16 oz): 180/0%/$8.61

Taco Bell

  • Bean Burrito: 370/24%/$2.95
  • Gordita baja, steak: 230/27%/$6.05
  • Soft Taco, chicken: 180/20%/$8.28 

Papa Gino's

  • Pizza, 1/2 lg: 1,000/24%/$4.50
  • Spaghetti: 650/15%/$6.55
  • Spaghetti + 2 meatballs: 905/29%/$5.83

Supermarket snacks

  • Yogurt, Columbo Cherry, 1 cup: 220/8%/$3.40
  • Granola bars, Nature Valley: 180/30%/$2.77
  • Teddy grahams (24 pieces): 130/27%/$2.55
  • Fig Newtons, 2: 110/20%/$2.42
  • Banana, large: 150/0%/$2.35
  • Burrito, frozen microwavable Tina's: 340/24%/$1.32

Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels casual and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, new Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. Also see www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for information about her online workshop.

This article originally appeared on Active.com—your source for event information, training plans, expert advice, and everything you need to connect with the sport you love.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

Active.com