Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do You Eat Like an Olympic Athlete?

That’s a loaded question, because depending on how you look at it, it could mean you’re in the best shape of your life. It might also mean that you’re an Olympic couch potato.

Most Olympic athletes follow a balanced diet that’s not much different from what would be recommended for you or me, although their food plan is most likely custom-designed for them by a professional nutritionist, based on their chosen sport and caloric needs.

Extreme Carbs for Michael Phelps

Some athletes are notorious for consuming an astonishing number of calories. Olympian swimmer and gold medalist Michael Phelps told The New York Post that he takes in an average 12,000 calories a day. (Compare that to the average caloric needs of an adult man at about 2,000 calories a day.)

Here’s what a typical entry in Phelps’ food diary might look like.

Breakfast: Three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise, followed by two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar and three chocolate-chip pancakes.

Lunch: A pound of enriched pasta and two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise, washed down by about 1,000 calories worth of energy drinks.

Dinner: A pound of pasta and a whole pizza.

Phelps’ diet may be extreme, but it’s no secret that elite athletes like him have to stay in prime physical shape if their years of intense training is going to pay off in gold, silver or bronze.

Interestingly, ancient Greek and Roman Olympians reportedly followed a meat-centric diet with similarities to today’s Atkins diet.

A Healthy Menu for an Olympic Speed Skater

Modern-day athletes don’t necessarily take the high protein route. Here’s what U.S. News & World Report says was on the menu for 24-year-old speed skater Maria Lamb one day during off-season training leading up to the Vancouver competition:

Breakfast: 1 cup of oatmeal with ¼ cup of raisins, cinnamon, sea salt, and 1 teaspoon of honey, a banana smoothie with ½ cup skim milk, ½ cup low-fat plain yogurt, 1 tablespoon flaxseed meal, and ice.

Workout nutrition (during 2½-hour roller ski session): 2 Clif Shots (energy gels)

Lunch: 2 slices whole-grain rye bread and 2 tablespoons hummus, 2 cups of carrot cilantro soup, a smoothie made with 1 banana, ½ cup nonfat plain yogurt, 1 scoop soy protein powder, 1 teaspoon virgin coconut oil, cinnamon, water, and for dessert, an apricot and a handful of cherries.

Mid-day snacks: Medium apple, Clif Nectar bar.

Workout nutrition (during 2½-hour strength training session): ½ Clif Bar.

Recovery nutrition (after workout): Other half of Clif Bar, medium banana

Dinner: Whole-wheat pasta tossed with sautéed zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, corn, onion, garlic, oregano, fresh basil, and olive oil; one egg. glass of milk, handful of almonds.

Snack: ¾ cup homemade granola (includes rolled oats, rye, whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, buckwheat groats, flaxseed meal, soy protein powder, walnuts, cinnamon, salt, honey, vanilla, and applesauce)

Maria consumed a total of 4,067 calories which included about 141 grams of protein, 685 grams of carbohydrates, and 102 grams of fat.

In some extremely strenuous sports, women have a hard time eating the calories needed to replace calories burned. Cross-country skiers, for instance, need to consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, said one U.S. Olympic Committee sports dietitian quoted by U.S. News & World Report.

Fruits and Veggies, Watch the Sugar for Olympic Cyclist

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong says that like anyone else, she has to watch what she eats or she’ll gain weight. So she eats a lot of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while avoiding high fructose corn syrup or too much added sugar.

According to, athletes like Armstrong match what they eat to how much they exercise rather than eating the same size meals every day. They’re more in touch with whether they feel hungry or full, and eat accordingly. When they’re not training, they cut back on portions to match their energy output; this allows them to maintain roughly the same body weight all year long, whether they’re training for the Olympics or not.

Olympic athletes look at food the way an auto mechanic looks at oil; both are necessary to keep the engine running well. Most, said, eat a diet that’s rich in carbs, with smaller amounts of protein and fat. Alcohol is not a regular part of the diet. Fresh fruits, salads and whole grains are, and protein is always combined with carbs to help them feel full.

Content, Not Calories

In 10 Tips for an Olympic Body, swimmer and three-time Olympic gold medalist Brooke Bennett says that content is more important than counting calories.

Like Armstrong, she emphasizes fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, and slow carbohydrates; she also watches her sugar intake carefully, because if it’s not burned off during exercise, it metabolizes quickly and will put on weight.

According to the CBS News story, Olympic athletes eat five to six smaller meals daily, and each meal includes protein to increase lean muscle mass.

Although most of us will never physically challenge ourselves in the way that Olympic competitors do, we can still take a lesson from them by adapting Olympians’ dietary choices to our own more sedentary lifestyles. Consider modifying your diet to include five or six smaller meals a day, combining protein with a low glycemic, carb-rich menu at each meal and limiting alcohol and added sugars.

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