Can you hear the sirens? It may sound like there’s a big fire a couple of blocks away, but actually, that’s the sound of your muscles squealing in fear. They’re in trouble because it’s time for a meal (let’s be honest, when isn’t it?) and you’re nowhere near a chicken breast.
America abounds with choices of chow for those with an empty belly and some spare change. But very few of those options are suitable for someone who’s trying to fill that belly while adhering to their bodybuilding diet . Being the hero who rescues your muscle mass  from certain doom is fairly simple if you know where - and how - to look.
Obviously, no matter how heroically you search, you’re not going to find the ideal bodybuilder menu at many of the following locations. But that’s okay. The idea is to find food that contains enough protein (without too much excess carbs and fat) to tide you over until you can get back to eating “real” food. And while we also advise you to eat clean for the rest of the day after experiencing a diet dilemma, don’t berate yourself if your emergency option causes a slight aberration in your daily fat intake. See how you fare on the following crisis-management quiz, and try to be better prepared from here on out.
1) Convenience Store Cuisine
What could be simpler than running into the am/pm while your car is gassing up? Especially when you’re late for a doctor’s appointment across town and you have no time to stop for lunch beforehand. Also simple? Grabbing the wrong thing from the junk food littering the convenience-store shelves. What should you pick?
a) Jack Link’s Beef Steak jerky and a small bag of Corn Nuts
b) Nachos and a blueberry muffin
c) A bean and beef burrito
With option B, the neon-orange “cheese” on those nachos could come from a hot vat that hasn’t been cleaned since people routinely wore neon orange. And there’s at least one brand of blueberry muffin that contains 710 calories, a very low 10 grams of protein, 85 grams of carbs and 36 grams of fat. The beef and bean burrito, on the other hand, may seem like a more well-rounded meal. But it’s also overloaded with carbs (37 grams), and though it has only 9 grams of fat, it’s low in protein.
At only 16 grams per burrito, you’d need to eat at least two to get a decent dose of protein, which would mean ingesting far too much of the wrong kind of carbs. Stick with low-fat (2 grams), high-protein (28 grams) beef jerky and a small (1.7-ounce) bag of Corn Nuts, which boasts 20 grams of slow-burning carbs (corn is fairly low on the glycemic index) and just 5 grams of fat. So, the answer is A.
2) Making Movie Magic
You remembered the flowers and to open the car door for your lovely lady, but you forgot to buy tickets in advance, and now the prime 9 p.m. showing of 27 Kisses From a Fool in Love is sold out. Your best option to salvage the date: Hit an earlier movie, then get dinner. That means it’ll be more than two hours before you can eat. What’s the best way to salvage your muscle at the concession stand?
a) A small popcorn, hold the butter, Goobers and an iced tea
b) A jumbo hot dog and a Diet Coke
c) Combo No. 1: a large popcorn with butter, candy of your choice (Red Vines, duh) and a cherry Icee
Obviously, choice C hasn’t really been an option since you were 11. And don’t be fooled by A. Yes, popcorn is a whole grain, but it’s high on the glycemic index. That means it’s a faster-digesting carb and eating it can cause insulin levels to spike, which increases fat storage. Besides, if you’re up on your food facts, you’ll know that when the Center for Science in the Public Interest conducted a study on movie-theater popcorn, it found a mass of trans fats and supersized servings.
While the peanuts in Goobers do contain protein, the candy is just too full of fat and carbs to be reasonable, even in an emergency situation. Instead, go with option B. Ignore the bun, pick up a couple of packets of mustard and you’re good to go.
Hot dogs are a fairly good source of protein, and though they do contain a lot of fat, particularly saturated fat, studies have shown that diets high in sat fat are better for maintaining testosterone levels. Besides, all you need is a bit of protein to get your muscles through the next hour and a half undamaged. As for the emotional damage incurred by being forced to sit through this summer’s hottest romantic comedy, well, you’re on your own. So the answer is B.
3) Food Flight
After standing in the security line for an hour for the privilege of pushing all of your personal carry-on items through a long line of bins and showing off your holey socks while walking through the metal detector, there’s never a lot of time to search the airport for a muscle-friendly meal. Sure, you can splash out $5 or more for a sandwich onboard (not that you’ll have all that many healthy options to choose from), but when you’re stuck 30,000 feet above anything containing whey, what snack do you choose to tide you over?
Obviously, peanuts are the only freebie that contain protein, and they have a good amount of healthy fats to boot. See if you can wrangle a low-fat milk for a little extra protein when the flight attendants come around with the beverage cart and you’ll be flying high. So the answer is C.
4) Coffee Break
There’s one on every corner, so it’s no surprise that Starbucks is an emergency pit stop for just about anyone with little time, little energy and little choice. In addition to the caffeine and coffee cake, though, Starbucks has a small selection of lunch items. What should you choose?
a) Turkey club sandwich on nine-grain whole-wheat
bread and an Americano with low-fat milk
b) Egg salad sandwich on multigrain bread and a latte
c) Fruit and cheese plate and a Caramel Frappuccino
We love cheese just as much as the next guy (maybe more!), but we’re going to leave the 44 grams of carbs and mere 14 grams of protein in the fruit and cheese plate for ladies dining daintily at a spa. Plus, adding one of Starbucks’ egregiously sugary drinks to any meal will basically tell your abs to scram (a grande Caramel Frappuccino has 53 grams of carbs without whipped cream!).
And if you’re tempted by the egg salad sandwich - eggs contain protein! - focus on the fact that it’s packed with 21 grams of fat (mostly from the mayo) and 53 grams of carbs (mostly from the pseudo-healthy multigrain bread). Opt instead for the turkey club (remove the bacon for better fat totals), which boasts 26 grams of protein and, though it has 33 grams of carbs, they come primarily from the whole-wheat bread, which won’t spike insulin levels and cause your abs to go into hiding. So the answer is A.
5) Speedy Sustenance
There’s nothing like the open road: wind in your hair, elbow resting on the windowframe, music pumping, not a car in sight. Also not in sight: lean protein options. Road-tripping may be part of the American dream, but it also means you may have to hit up that all-too-American icon - the fast-food joint. When faced with a menu overflowing with diet pitfalls, what do you choose?
a) Big Mac, medium fries and a chocolate milkshake
b) Premium Grilled Chicken Classic Sandwich and a Fruit ’n Yogurt Parfait
c) Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken and a Diet Coke
True, choice A may be the perfect complement to your road trip, but it will do nothing to perfect your physique. At first glance, B looks like a good option. The sandwich is a chicken breast, grilled, served on a honey-wheat bun. The sandwich and the parfait are part of McDonald’s push to offer healthier choices, but together, those pseudo-healthy options contain a staggering 82 grams of carbs.
Eat that, sit on your bum for the next 300 miles and you’ll arrive at your destination with more baggage than you left home with. Instead, opt for the Caesar salad, and make sure the chicken is grilled, not crispy. With 220 calories, 30 grams of protein and only 12 grams of carbs, you’ll be traveling light. And we don’t even mind if you supersize the Diet Coke. So the answer is C.
6) Adventures in Vending
It’s one of those crazy Mondays. Not only was your train late, but you left your lunch in the fridge at home and Outlook is pinging endlessly to remind you of all the meetings you have this afternoon. Your only choice for some sustenance is the office vending machine. What should you choose?
a) A bag of Sun Chips and a bag of trail mix
b) A pack of cheese and crackers and a granola bar
c) Doritos and M&Ms
Sure, Doritos and M&Ms might quiet your rumbling stomach before your 2 o’clock, but with the rush of sugar and resulting insulin crash, you’ll be snoring (and increasing the size of your fat cells) by 3. Similarly, those cheese-and-cracker packs and granola bars are stuffed with fast carbs and trans fats.
Even though Sun Chips may not seem much different from Doritos on the surface, they’re made with whole grains - corn, wheat and oat flour - which means each 1-ounce serving contains 18 grams of fairly slow-digesting carbs. Couple that with the protein from the nuts in the trail mix (pick out any fruit bits for a lower-carb meal) and you have something to tide you - and your muscle mass - over until you can down your preworkout shake. So the answer is A.