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Eat Like an Olympian


Balanced Diet

Do you remember the buzz about U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' diet during the 2008 Summer Olympics? With 22 Olympic medals to date — 18 of them gold — this ultra-athlete consumes as many as 12,000 calories during the training days prior to his races. Phelps starts his day with a breakfast of "three fried-egg sandwiches, three chocolate chip pancakes, a five-egg omelet, three sugar-coated slices of French toast, and a bowl of grits."

We're not suggesting that your weekend warrior pursuits or daily power walks justify anywhere near the caloric mega-consumption required by Olympic athletes. Your daily needs are based on your basal metabolic rate — the number of calories you burn regularly just going about your daily life -- and the frequency and intensity of your exercise program.

Women require from 1,800 to 2,200 calories per day, based on age and activity level, and men need from 2400 to 2800. Use this chart as a general reference point, remembering that your metabolism is unique. You can also plug your information into this calorie calculator tool from the American Cancer Society to determine your own number.

Although you may not ever get your photo on a Wheaties' box, and you'll probably never train up to 6 hours per day, 6 days a week like an Olympic athlete, you can still use diet and exercise to improve your personal health and well-being.

Keeping your own daily caloric needs and personal health and fitness goals in mind, how can you eat like an Olympian?

1) Plan your meals ahead

An Olympic athlete's daily meal plan looks something like this:

  • 55-60 percent of their daily calories come from carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

  • 15-25 percent of their daily calories come from lean proteins, fish, poultry, beans, and low-fat dairy.

  • 20-30 percent is derived from high-quality fats such as olive oil, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados.

Planning your meals in advance saves time, money, and calories. Create your meal plan for the next day the night before. When you grocery shop, take a list that contains enough foundational foods to last you several days, if not the full week. This prevents impulse buying.

2) Eat breakfast

Olympians consume their first meal approximately 30 to 60 minutes after waking up, and high-quality, lean protein is always on the menu. Go organic when possible with your food choices. Build a power breakfast from:

  • Omega-3-rich eggs or egg whites

  • Lean breakfast meats like turkey sausage

  • Low-fat, organic dairy

  • High-protein, whole grains like steel cut oatmeal or quinoa

3) Eat small, frequent meals

Olympians fuel their bodies at least every four hours. A regular meal schedule prevents fatigue and reduces the risk of injury. Make it your goal to provide your body with all of the macronutrients and calories required to sustain your daily activities. Proper nutrition during high-activity periods helps you avoid glycogen depletion, reduces muscle damage, speeds muscle recovery, and enhances your immune function.

4) Eat for your sport

Endurance athletes such as cyclists and marathon runners have different nutritional needs before, during, and after their sports than those of powerlifters. "Endurance athletes will need to ensure they have a higher carbohydrate intake so they have adequate fuel for what can be hours of exercise. Whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables and fruits are all great dietary sources of carbohydrates," says to Kary Woodruff, R.D., a sports nutrition specialist with University of Utah Health Care.. "Strength athletes will have slightly higher protein needs to support increases in lean muscle mass. Appropriate protein sources include lean meats, fish, eggs, dairy such as Greek yogurt and milk, nuts/seeds, beans, and soy. Team sport athletes can have carbohydrate and protein needs somewhere in between, depending on the sport."

5) Eat to repair your body

It's important to replenish nutrients within 30 minutes of a grueling run or long-distance bike ride. A nutrient-packed shake is an easy-to-digest option. Try a post workout shake with:

  • Soy or nut milk

  • A plant- or whey-based protein powder

  • A banana or berries

  • Two tablespoons of creamy peanut butter

6) Don't forsake flavor

Performance nutritionist Krista Austin, PhD, CSCS, works with the U.S.A. Taekwondo Olympic Team as well as many Olympic marathon runners and swimmers. Austin emphasizes the importance of flavor in an athlete's diet. "The most flavorful food often comes from cultural dishes that provide unique spices." Try adding spices to flavor your favorite dishes instead of extra salt or fat.

7) Hydrate often

Although fluid requirements vary from person to person, try to stick to a schedule and consume approximately 11 to 15 cups of water daily, suggests the Institute of Medicine. Opt for filtered, contaminant-free water whenever possible, and supplement with herbal teas and natural juices. Be careful not to overhydrate: drinking too much fluid can lead to an electrolyte imbalance and a condition known as hyponatremia.

8) Boost energy and brainpower with caffeine

Many Olympians start their day with coffee. Marathon runner Desiree Linden adds Double Latte PowerGels to her water later in her race for "a nice mental boost" from the caffeine. Studies show the caffeine in coffee might also provide longer-term benefits to thinking skills and memory. But, as with everything, be sure that you don't over-caffeinate.

9) If it works, don't fix it

Once you find an eating plan that works for you, stick with it. If you're fueling your active lifestyle and never experiencing digestive problems or food intolerance sensitivities -- you're golden. Pro runner Alysia Montano has an ironclad rule for race day: "To stick with what I know and am comfortable with - never throw anything in unknown if I don't have to."

Decathlon champ Jeremy Taiwo is "gluten-, corn-, and soy-free" because all of those things make him feel lethargic.

10) Use vitamins and supplements to fill in the gaps

Before she even gets out of bed in the morning, Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson likes to "grab a bottle of water and take my 10 vitamins . . . they make up for the nutrients I miss when the food can not supply them."

Sports dietitian, Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD explains: "The principles of sports nutrition never change regardless if you're a weekend warrior, average exerciser, or elite athlete; the only aspect that changes is the total caloric intake. Whether I'm working with a mom who plays tennis five days a week or an Olympian, we still focus on the same eating principles such as eating every 3 to 4 hours, eating after training to enhance recovery, and hydrating well."