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5 Nutrition Lessons We Can Learn from Olympians

Aug 3, 2012
By Kimberly Boyd

In 2008, Michael Phelps made Olympic headlines with eight gold medals — and his breakfast: three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and mayonnaise; a five-egg omelet; two cups of coffee; a bowl of porridge; three chocolate-chip pancakes; and three slices of French toast.

A fascination with foods that fuel Olympic athletes is nothing new. Food historians have found ancient documents describing Olympic feats — and feasts — of epic proportions. In a 15-volume tome from 200 C.E., Milon of Croton, a wrestler who won six Olympic medals, was described as eating 20 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of bread and washing it down with three pitchers of wine (if his food intake is to be believed, Milo would have consumed about 57,000 calories per day!).

Contrary to Milon’s mythical tale, most athletes competing in the 2012 London Games will not be following this kind of eating regimen. In fact, some judo players, wrestlers, and boxers trying to make weight may restrict their calories and minimize fluid intake. Unhealthy patterns of restriction can also happen in sports with higher rates of eating disorders, such as gymnastics, running, rowing, swimming, and diving. Other athletes have found that they feel and perform best when following specific vegan or gluten-free diets. Ten-time Olympic track medalist Carl Lewis as well as tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams attribute enhanced strength, endurance, and athletic longevity to a plant-based diet. For swimmer Dana Vollmer, who won London gold in the 100-meter butterfly, her lifelong stomachaches improved and she felt leaner and stronger in the water when she eliminated gluten and eggs from her diet.

Olympic athletes’ diets may seem as varied as the events in which they perform. But as you watch the svelte bodies compete in London, here are some unifying nutrition principles that are helpful take-homes for all of us.

1. Eat to Fuel Your Activity Level

Consider the context for the high caloric intakes of some athletes. Michael Phelps may have a piled-high breakfast plate, but he also burns around 1,000 calories per hour during his workouts. In contrast, the average weekend warrior burns about 400 to 700 calories per hour of exercise. Athletes must eat to keep up with their energy expenditures; marathoners and distance cyclers describe feeling weak after workouts and having unusually sore muscles the next day if they don’t fuel themselves adequately ahead of time.

As athletes move out of periods of intense training, their diets adjust accordingly. Standard daily guidelines are 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day for adult women and 2,200 to 2,500 for adult men (with variation based on physical activity). While calorie-counting shouldn’t be a major focus for a healthy diet, eating appropriate portions when you are hungry is an important principle. In a recent interview, Phelps joked that when he eventually retires from swimming and switches to other activities, like golf, his diet will need to change.

2. Eat Mindfully and Make Good Food Choices

Even when athletes eat maximal calories to match their rigorous training schedules, they’re still intentional about the foods that they choose. Their diets must provide the protein needed for strength and muscle building, and the carbohydrates necessary for energy. Generally speaking, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats are the pillars of Olympic nutrition.

Highly processed foods, refined sugars, and alcohol don’t provide building blocks that are helpful for optimal athletic performance. Some young athletes describe chowing down on pizza and fast food to keep up with caloric needs, but they’re in the minority; most athletes stick to a more meticulous diet. Olympic beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh focuses anti-inflammatory foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and seafood to avoid causing added inflammation to her joints. Lolo Jones, a world-champion hurdler, allows a weekly splurge to help keep temptation at bay; “One meal a week, I have whatever I want. During the last Olympics, it was wings. This year, it’s burritos.”

3. Eat Healthy Snacks

Athletes deal with hectic schedules, traveling, and varying workout demands. Not skipping meals and eating well-timed snacks helps them stay at their best for workouts and competitions. Soccer star Mia Hamm, now a mother of twins, recommends planning ahead and making sure you bring healthy snacks with you. Trail mix, energy bars, and vegetables with hummus are good options. Olympic gymnastics balance beam champion Shawn Johnson names Greek yogurt a favorite snack; 11-time Olympic swimming medalist Natalie Coughlin prefers making her own dried-plum energy bars. When athletes eat before workouts, they typically choose foods that will be easy to digest and avoid potentially gassy foods like beans or broccoli.

4. Keep Hydrated

Water is an essential component of the human body and plays an important role in the function of cells, tissues, and organs. During exercise, sweating is the body’s primary way of controlling temperature; failing to hydrate appropriately can lead to muscle fatigue, loss of coordination, decreased energy and athletic performance, and other potential adverse health consequences. Even if you aren’t exercising, staying hydrated helps you function at your best. According to decathlete Trey Hardee, “Even if you don’t change your diet but pay more attention to how much water you drink, it will make a difference. You’ll be surprised at how good you feel.”

Olympic athletes hydrate before, during, and after exercise. And they adjust their fluid intake based on heat and exercise intensity. During hot weather, marathon runner Ryan Hall starts his day with 20 ounces of water and drinks at least eight ounces of water before and after meals to help with his digestion. Hall acknowledges, “Water plays a key part in the digestive process. I’ve found that sometimes when I have stomach issues after meals, it’s more related to my hydration level than the food I’ve just taken in.” During runs, he continuously hydrates with an electrolyte beverage. Sports drinks that contain electrolytes help replace sodium lost in sweat and reduce the chances of developing hyponatremia, a condition (in which the level of sodium in your blood is lower than normal) that can be life-threatening. Drinking when you’re thirsty is one basic, intuitive guide to staying hydrated, and having pale-colored urine is another way to ensure adequate hydration. One note of caution, however: If you’re exercising, you may need more fluids than your thirst indicates.

5. Be Smart About Supplements

Some athletes use dietary supplements to try to increase energy, maintain strength, enhance performance, reduce inflammation, and stay healthy. Dara Torres, who, at 45, narrowly missed making her sixth Olympic team at the US swimming Olympic Trials in early July, took amino acids, black licorice, Indian and American ginseng, rhodiola (aka Arctic root), and B vitamins in an attempt to gain an extra edge for recovery and performance. Other athletes take fish oil and basic minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron to support their bodies through the rigors of training.

Athletes must be very cautious about the supplements they use. Many of the supplement claims haven’t been substantiated by research, and the purity of nutritional supplements can’t be guaranteed. In one report commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a quarter of the 600 over-the-counter nutritional supplements that were analyzed contained non-labeled banned substances that could lead to a positive drug test. Although most of us aren’t likely to be subjected to doping tests for gym workouts and neighborhood runs, we should still be wise about what we take. It’s also important to realize that even when athletes take supplements, they still emphasize a foundation of a well-balanced, healthy diet and appropriate hydration for peak performance.

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Kimberly Boyd

Kim takes a comprehensive, integrative approach to healthcare and values developing long-lasting partnerships with her patients. A compassionate listener and thorough physician, she enjoys helping patients alter their lifestyles for optimal health and wellness. As a former elite gymnast, Kim is also particularly interested in musculoskeletal conditions. She received a bachelor's degree in human biology from Stanford University and continued at Stanford for her MD. After doing her residency training in family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, Kim completed a fellowship in integrative medicine in a joint program through Andrew Weil's Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and Oregon Health & Science University. Kim is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Kim is a One Medical Group provider and sees patients in our Chicago offices.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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