Eat Like an Olympian
Have you ever wondered what Olympians eat? We’ve been told the importance of training and recovery, but where does food come into play? Sure Olympians require far more calories than the average person (anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 calories per day), but how do they do that in a healthy way?
Being an elite athlete isn’t a ticket to eat whatever you want. Our bodies are fine tuned machines. Think about food as gas in the engine of a car. If we put the wrong type of fuel in the tank, our bodies will not perform optimally. We might be more sluggish, tired, sore, etc. For that reason, even though Olympians burn excessive amounts of calories during their intense training sessions, they pay attention to the types of calories that they ingest.
As with anyone else, there is a learning curve. Olympians have to learn how to shop, cook and prep just like the rest of us. Nanna Meyer, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sports dietitian and a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs , reported that at each Olympics, she has had athletes who wanted to learn new cooking skills or even learn how to make their own bread. In fact, the USOC realized that proper education about what to fuel your body with is so important that it now houses a “Training Kitchen” to help train athletes. This provides a setting for the Olympic sports dietitians to teach athletes how to make grocery lists. The dietitians take them shopping so they can discuss which foods are best for them and explain why.
They start simple with basic knife skills and heating methods and increase up to teaching them how to prepare a full nutrient-dense pre-game meal for a team. The athletes also learn travel nutrition skills and ideas so that those who travel internationally are equipped with the knowledge to make healthy choices. Meyer states that she would ideally like to have the athletes grow their own food so that they can learn about the food chain.
Athletes aren’t born with the innate ability to know how to eat well.
They have to be taught too, just like us! Additionally, despite what we might glamorize, they have limitations too. USOC sports dietitian, Alicia Kendig, MS, RD, CSSD stated that, “ Many athletes, although they know how important nutrition is to recovery and performance, have limitations in their lifestyle or budget that keeps them from eating in the way they would like to. Some athletes are living on a limited budget while pursuing the Olympic dream. Other athletes have jam-packed training and travel schedules that limit their ability to shop for and prepare meals.” In circumstance like that, the dietitians work within those limitations to find a realistic balance. It can be done! ☺
In the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps was said to have consumed approx 12,000 calories per day. At the time, Phelps got those calories in whatever way possible. Rather than focusing on the type of fuel, his primary focus was replenishing the calories burned.
While someone with his activity level might be able to get away with eating poorly for a while, the consequences eventually rear their ugly head.
- It might not always manifest in the way of weight gain, thought it certainly can.
- Long term consumption of non-nutritive high caloric processed foods containing large amounts of saturated fats, simple carbohydrates and simple sugars can silently destroy you internally.
- It increases blood sugar levels ,which can lead to Type II diabetes, increases blood pressure, triglycerides, LDL “bad” cholesterol and can also contribute to iron deficiency anemia, B12 deficiency and other vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
- Believe it or not, it is quite possible to consume excessive amounts of calories and still be malnourished if the foods consumed are devoid of nutrients (“empty calorie” foods).
You’re not alone if you’re feeling skeptical and think that healthy eating is boring. According to Phelps, “I used to think that healthy meant that it wouldn’t taste good. It’s like putting higher octane fuel in a car — I run better when I eat better.” He discovered that when you eat well, you feel better and perform better. Phelps reported that over the years, he has adjusted his diet to include fewer calories. However the calories that he does consume are from nutrient dense foods such as quality animal protein sources and healthy fats.
I’m not just saying this because I’m a dietitian. Food really does impact performance. In 2004, then 21-year-old Lashinda Demus made her first appearance at the Olympic Games in Athens. Her performance was unsuccessful and when asked what contributed to her less than optimal show, she attributed it to poor eating habits. Demus confessed that she made numerous visits to McDonald’s, which conveniently located in the athletes’ village. After, Demus began to take her nutrition seriously. She made sure that she was constantly hydrated by consuming at least half of her body weight in ounces of water per day and chose healthy proteins and complex carbohydrates. Additionally, she supplemented Omega-3 fatty acids which help decrease inflammation, magnesium which helps with muscle/nerve function among others minerals. In addition to her dedicated training, Demus’s focus on nutrition paid off. After these changes she went on to win the 400-m hurdle world title in Daegu, Korea, in 2011 and was a silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics.
So, even though you don’t need the same quantities of food as Olympians do, you can eat the same types of foods. If anyone has an “excuse” to eat whatever they want, it’s Olympic athletes.
However, they choose to eat well! Don’t use you exercise as a reason to justify unhealthy eating. The saying “abs are made in the kitchen” is true! Balance your meals, as they do, by choosing quality protein (beef, chicken, fish, lamb, turkey, bison, eggs), healthy fats (avocado, nuts/seeds, coconut/avocado/olive oils, etc), fruits, vegetables and complex carbs (wild rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oats).