Nutrition: You can have your cake…

How to get away with eating junk food

Some cake, yesterday

By understanding your own attitude to food and exercise, you can learn how to change your eating habits so you still get to enjoy the energy-boosting effects of cakes and biscuits without the negative effects.


Everyone knows that handfuls of biscuits, cakes, ice-cream, fruit pies and jelly beans offer sub-optimal nutrition. And yet many cyclists are addicted to these foods, eat monstrous portions and then wonder why they suffer from energy highs and lows, headaches or simply get fat. 

Energy balance

If your weekend ride is a way of losing weight as well as cashing in on the long-term benefits of regular exercise, it is important to maintain energy balance. If you return from a long ride hungry, it is all too easy to grab a poor-quality snack. This is likely to be loaded with sugar and/or fat making it a very energy-dense food. This means you don’t need to eat much of it and, before you know it, you’ve consumed as many calories as you’ve just burnt up during your ride.

The trick to avoid putting on weight is to choose foods with a low energy density, foods high in water and fibre. We all know it is important to drink fluids to prevent dehydration, but when water is incorporated into food, it can help with weight loss. We are creatures of habit and tend to become used to eating a constant volume of food.

When this volume of food is eaten, sensors in the stomach send messages to the brain via the vagus nerve. These messages trigger the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which signals that ‘I’m full’ feeling. We then stop eating. 

Foods that contain a lot of water and are bulky, such as broth or lentil soup, vegetable and bean stews, rice noodle soups, fresh fruit and steamed vegetables, increase the volume of a meal but not the energy density. Add in foods which contain fibre (peas, beans, lentils, sweetcorn, wholemeal bread, brown rice) and you add bulk to a meal and also slow down digestion and absorption, thereby helping you to feel full for longer. 

A meal of lentil soup and a chunk of wholemeal bread with a little butter is an ideal recovery meal that will satisfy hunger but allow you to control your calorie intake.

There are times though, usually during a ride, when bulky foods offering a lower energy density are the last thing you want. This is when cakes or biscuits become a practical – and popular – snack for cyclists. 

The good news is that these can provide a useful boost of carbohydrate in a concentrated form. The bad news is you need to choose wisely, as there are plenty of cakes and flapjack bars on the market which contain poor-quality ingredients. These will clog your system rather than boost your energy levels.

Flapjack bars can contain a fantastic carbohydrate-boosting mixture of syrup, oats and dried fruits, but avoid those which also come loaded with hydrogenated fat. Seek out organic flapjack bars (in health food shops or supermarkets’organic ranges) as they’ll contain superior ingredients and won’t have the damaging hydrogenated fats.

Healthy life not shelf life

Chocolate swiss rolls and cake bars are cheap and may seem a budget way of carrying a lot of energy in your back pocket, but while they will give you an instant sugar boost, this comes with a range of emulsifiers, humectants, thickeners and preservatives. These are designed to give shelf life to the cake rather than contribute to your health.

Choose traditional cakes instead, such as from the Taylors of Harrogate range. They do a Yorkshire Tea loaf and real ginger cake. Read the label and you will see ingredients – flour, treacle, butter, golden syrup, sultanas, egg and baking powder – you would expect to find in a homemade cake. The end result is a high carbohydrate food with some protein and trace minerals. 


Malt loaf is a good choice too. There is now an organic version with the benefit of pesticide-free ingredients. It does not contain the preservative E282, so it will not keep well and you may find you need to eat the whole loaf mid ride, before returning to a less energy dense meal once you get home. This combination will keep hunger at bay, and help you maintain or lose weight. You can have your cake and eat it!