Eat Like an Olympic Athlete

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I LOVE the Olympics and from February 12-18, I will be watching as the world comes together 'with glowing hearts' to witness as the saying goes, 'the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat' during the Vancouver Winter Olympic.

A couple years back during the Beijing Summer Olympics, we learned gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps consumes 12,000 calories a day when he is in training. In stark comparison, a male of about the same age and height that is only moderately active would require around 2,000 calories a day.

Do all Olympic athletes need a diet significantly different than ours?

According to a recent U.S. News & World Report article, female cross country skiers may have trouble consuming the 4,000 to 5,000 calories necessary to replace what they are burning. In comparison, a male ski jumper may have trouble maintaining the more restrictive nutritionally balanced intake necessary to maintain his lean muscular body. The nutritional needs of Olympic athletes are primarily dependent on gender, sport, competition conditions, and body type as well as other more individual factors. A sports dietitian will prescribe a specific diet regimen based on a specific number of grams per kilogram of body weight for the macronutrients such as carbohydrate, protein, and fat. The workout length, frequency, and intensity are also used to determine the correct ratios. For example, intense training sports may require 7 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight whereas a lower intensity sport may only require 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. Athletes that depend on strength and power such as those playing ice hockey may need 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight whereas an endurance athlete like a cross-country skier may only require 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Regardless of the sport or their specific nutritional prescription, an athlete's nutritional starting point is the same as for you and me -- nutrient rich foods. A 2009 joint position statement created by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), Dietitians of Canada (DC), and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) related to nutrition and athletic performance states that optimal nutrition is essential for all physical activity, athletic performance and recovery from exercise. While specific guidelines may exist for specific competitors, the basic nutrition guidelines that apply to you, apply to the elite athlete as well. These basic guidelines include:

  • Adequate macronutrient selection of carbohydrates, protein and fat instead of drastically reducing any of one of them. This would include a percentage daily intake of 10 to 35 percent protein, 45 to 65 percent carbohydrates, and 20 to 35 percent fat.
  • Meeting RDA for vitamin and mineral micronutrients.
  • Nutrient rich meal and snack selections centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources and healthy fat sources.
Some body types lend themselves to certain athletic events more than others so body weight and composition have to be taken into consideration. When a sport requires speed, a lean body with a greater muscle to fat ratio is advantageous. When certain weight classes or ranges are necessary, balance and care must be used so that lean muscle is preserved as weight is altered. While several studies have been inconclusive regarding athletic performance and energy and protein restriction, studies have shown that carbohydrate restriction is detrimental to optimal performance. Many of the athletes that need more calories like the ski and snowboarding team, eat nutrient-rich, good-quality food just in larger portion sizes. One of the keys to peak performance is having not only the energy but also the nutrients available for your body to use.

One of the unique obstacles for some winter Olympic athletes is the altitude. Higher altitudes not only dehydrate the body but also require slight increases in energy because the heart has to work harder to circulate blood adequately. Some females that struggle with adequate iron stores may also require additional iron support through diet when competing or training at high altitudes. Hydration can be a challenge in colder environments and dehydration is possible. Not only is fluid lost due to perspiration but fluid is also lost from respiration as well. Since athletes are not dripping wet with perspiration due to their layers of clothing, they may not realize how much is being lost during a workout or competition. Some female athletes require many layers of clothing that can make breaking for urination more difficult and time consuming so some may voluntarily limit fluid intake as well. Add to that the lower interest in cool fluids in cold weather and you can see how adequate hydration can be a bigger problem in cold weather activity. Coaches, trainers, and team dietitians must continually work to keep warm fluids readily available and consumed during intense cold weather training and competition.

Healthy eating to reach our goals is essential for us as well as the Olympic athletes. It is reassuring to see they struggle with maintaining the correct intake and fluid balance too.

Are you eating like an Olympic athlete and training hard to reach your goals?

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My son, Nick, went on a business trip to Vancouver during the last 4 days of the Games and he got to see the Hockey Game and Closing Ceremony among the events. He had a great time. Glad the World comes together for these GAMES. Report
Very interesting article. Report
I know this isn't the gist of the article, but I appreciated reading about how high altitude affects the heart if one is anemic or has low iron stores (ferritin). I wish I'd known that years before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I might have taken my heart palpitations more seriously when they presented when I camped at high altitudes. I thought it was cause I was out of shape (which was/is true, too, unfortunately ... because I was tired from being anemic!) Report
Have you seen the McDonald's commercial running during the Olympics; really--it's an outrage. The commercial is for their chicken nuggets or whatever they're called. The hook: eat like an Olympian. I don't imagine chicken nuggets are high on an Olympians diet. Report
This really brings it home as to how important it is to get your calories and nuitrients for the activies you do.If you are more sedatary then cutting calories to lose weight is a must.Will being trying not to be a couch potato for the duration of the winter olympics,Love watching them. Report
Good article, it doesn't matter who you are you should eat healthily according to your specific needs. Report
great article Report
I am no decathlete. More or less maintaining a little above goal on 1,550 to 1,600 calories now. Ahh,now for Mike Phelps. I miss swimming. That had been good for a few hundred (not thousand) calories to be eaten that never showed! Report
no unfortunately i am not, i am trying to lose weight.
we got another snowfall last night. when it all clears
i will be going to the gym. Report
I can see eating that many calories with such training regiment. My upmost admiration for their commitment to represent our country and to shine. Report
Loved the article, very interesting about the calories. I had no idea about how many calories the athletes had to intake. Report
I thought the paragraph about dehydration was spot on. My son was on a scout campout in very cold weather and higher altitude than we live at. The last day he was feeling weak and dizzy and cold. I went through the whole list when he was home of what he'd been sleeping in and finally got out of him that he'd had less than one bottle of water the whole weekend (of high activity) because the water kept freezing. I'm pretty sure that most of his feeling bad was dehydration related as much as cold related.
Next time I'll take a trick from the German Red Cross and have hot sweet tea makings for his patrol. (This is what they serve out of huge Army kettles at winter sporting events). Report
Neat article
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to "eat like an Olympian" while attending a coaching clinic at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. We stayed in the dorms and ate at the training center where the athletes eat. Meals are served cafeteria style. First of all, the food was DELICIOUS! The chefs and cooks did a great job of preparing healthy, attractive meals. Second, each food item had a small sign that told the protein, carbs, fats and calories in a serving. The pans of food had specifically sized scoops so you knew how much a serving of the item was. Each athlete was easily able to make choices based on whether they needed to eat a LOT of calories (swimmers, etc) or if they needed to watch their calorie intake (gymnasts, etc.)

It was GREAT to able to easily make good food choices!

I am trying to get our cafeteria at our college to add nutrition signs to each food item and use the portion sized scoops. They say it is too difficult, but it is obviously do-able! All cafeterias should do it! Report
With the exception of the skaters and the winter decathlon Olympians 12,000 could be a health hazard.

I was a power lifter in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Those of us in the summer games need more calories during training, prep, and competition, however when the games are over we would drop WAY back.

It's a question of exercitation.

As I am currently in a weight loss cycle I am taking in 1,250 Kcals. daily. Thatís almost 1/10th of Michael Phelps competition intake.

Always remember...GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT. Report
As time goes on, I find I am more apt to think of my meals first as fuel for my day, especially physical activities, as opposed to using physical activities as a way to eat more. I focus on higher quality foods (less processed), increase protein a smidge during heavy strength training times since in my body at least it makes a difference in recovery time and strength gains; and for the rest of it keep a good balance among carbs, protein, fat. Report
Really interesting article. Can't wait for the Olympics to start! Report
I remember when Michael Phelphs told all of us about his calorie intake. I know from swimming myself, that I burn a lot of calories for the hour that I put in - it's almost 1200 calories. So, that works with my calorie intake of about 2200 calories a day. I like eating that much, so I make sure that I "train" that much too. Report
High altitude is definitely a challenge I regularly live and exercise at 8500-10000 feet. You have GOT to get those fluids replaced or else you struggle with headaches and sleeplessness. Report
I love the Olympics, and can't wait for them to begin. I sure don't eat like an Olympian, but then I don'tt train like one either. I always figured putting that much demand on the body must have it's challenges, especially in very cold weather. Thanks for the good information. Report
It is difficult for me to eat enough calories, I often find myself below what I should be eating. Hard to grasp the idea that I need to eat to lose weight. Report
Wow! 4,000-5,000 calories for Michael Phelps! I had no idea! Report
Something to think about! Report
Fun article Report
As a resident of the province that is hosting the Olympics, I wont' get into the political end of the games. For now I'll just let it go, enjoy the games (as winter is my favourite games) and deal with the after-math later. I used to do many winter activities and I always have lived in higher altitudes. I didn't dress to the point that I found it too difficult to urinate, I don't understand that comment at all. Men dress similar as women, its layers upon layers, lightweight clothing. It's really not that difficult to undress to urinate and I used to XC ski all the time, even in the Arctic. Keeping self from sweating like one does in the summer is very important where it's cold or you could freeze areas without realizing it, which is one of the reasons why athletics are so focused on materials for clothes and layers. (the other, of course, is speed as they want to wear the lightest weight possible for speed without freezing in the process). The body has to breathe and Olympics athletics are no different with that. Plus they have access to materials that most of us dream of for using in winter sports, that is not only lightweight, it breathes beautifully. Hockey players - male or female - all wear the same equipment and they sweat like ... well ... pigs. Now that is tough equipment to get in and out of - for both genders. Being hydrated is very important for them and regardless of bladder needs, if they don't stay hydrated, they will not perform well. More and more I noticed that rather than water, they drink an electrolyte mix. Which makes total sense, as a means to replace all that is lost playing the games. It was an interesting article, another perspective and reminder that all people struggle at times to meet nutritional needs, even those that are involved with intense training. Enjoy the games, it'll be a warm 2 weeks and hey, enjoy that snow. It's being imported by helicopters and trucks from Manning Park and other regions. The ski moguls are having dry ice inserted to keep them from melting - it new and experimental. Done to try to keep the games as green as possible. Its the warmest winter on record (ever) for Cypress Mountain, just cross your fingers it all works so that you all can enjoy the games and the athletes have snow to compete on. Report
Thanks for the info! Report
Love to watch the Olympics and never miss them. My family does not like watching much sports on tv except the Olympics and NASCAR. We do love to see baseball games and hockey in person. I wish we had cable so I could see more of them.. No I do not eat like these people, I have trouble just eating the calories I am suppose too. Report
Starting this program makes me feel like all I do is eat...hope it pays off in the end:) Report
I think it also came out later in an interview that Michael Phelps does NOT eat 12,000 calories during training. Report
Enjoyed the article. Hope it snows enough for the full program to be run. Report
Wow!! That is a lot of calories!!! I am consuming a good amount of calories... for being active. Looking forward to the Winter Olympics :) Report
I couldn't imagine eating THAT much food. I'm having a hard enough time staying within the 1550 calorie range. lol It's a work in progress. Report
I don't eat like an olympian. I have a hard enough time trying to eat 2,000 calories Report
I'm sure it would be much easier to eat a nutritionally sound diet with a professional dietitian making my meal plans. Do I eat like an Olympic athlete? Um.. no... but I'm not trying to be in the olympics either. :P Report
Very interesting article! Report
Fun article, great info, can't wait for the olympics to start. Report
Love the Olympics too! I do not eat like one! However, I do notice that when I have an extra hard workout or activity, the desire to consume more calories is there. Just have to make sure they are the right kind of calories! Report
The Vancouver 2010 Olympics run from February 12 - 28. : ) Report
You have left me with an question to ask. I am in South Africa and my town is 6000 metres above sea level. Does this mean I must increase my daily intake to compensate then if I was at sea level.
But a very good article enjoyed it. Report
Great info. Report
Right after the summer Olympic closing ceremonies, my nephew turned to me and asked when it was going to be on again. His birthday is on Valentine's Day, 2 days after the winter Olympics start, and he and I are very excited. My goal is to have us eat healthy snacks when we watch - air popped popcorn, veggies, fruits, and lots of water. So, while we won't be following an Olympian's diet, we will be eating healthy while we watch the Olympians on television. Report
Great article! Report
The winter olympics always brings to my mind the time I tried what was called the U.S. Ski Team Diet. It consisted mostly of eggs and grapefruit. After reading this, I wonder how that diet really got its name. Surely skiers did not have to follow such a plan.

Glad I found ww and sparkpeople. This approach is so much better. And if I DID lose weight on the ski team diet, I am sure I gained and lost it again many times over. Report
loved your article, but i don't eat like an Olympian. Report
Thank you for the article. I have found day-to-day tracking of macro nutrients through the spark pages a simple tool for evaluation and maintenance. I struggle with hitting the ideal most days; however, week-to-week I am spot on. I believe my body accommodates the daily variations quite well, unless I am low on carbohydrates. My brain will grow fuzzy and I misdiagnose tiredness for under consumption. Report
Haven't found my balance yet. I burned over 6,000 calories last and didn't loose a pound. Tried not to over eat but must have. Guess I need to keep better track of food intake. I hate that part. Report
Very Interesting
Thank you. Report
Great article! Report
I am waiting anxiously for the Olympics to begin. I watch it as much as I can. I am learning how to eat and exercise in combination to lose weight. Great article. Report
I love the Winter Olympics! I plan on watching every minute of it! Especially my favorite-ice skating. I don't train like one, but sometimes I feel like I eat like one-lol. I am just working in the steps one at a time. Report
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