The Olympian's Plate

My culinary curiosity kicked in the other night as I watched the hyper-competitive swimmers jettison through the water with the grace of dolphin-sharks. How do these uber athletes fuel their bodies to be able to consistently sustain this level of physical output? Might there actually be such a thing as a Breakfast of Champions? I did some digging and just as I suspected, there is no magic meal that can turn us mere mortals into athletic forces to contend with. My peek behind the curtain did turn up some interesting info that makes the Games that much more interesting. Who knows, it might possibly help you improve your own athletic prowess a bit.

There was the story about what the athletes are actually eating, but how about a look at what they should be eating? To get to the bottom of this, I asked around and came up with this:

1. Sports dietitians are key members of the Olympic team. Food & Nutrition describes nutrition as one leg of a three-legged stool that makes athletes great. Genetics and training/coaching are the other two legs. Fortunately, the athletes don't have to go it alone in the nutrition department. Starting with the 2000 games, the International Olympic Committee mandated that licensed dietitians work with the caterers and consequently nutritional info is available for all dishes. In addition, our athletes have a record-breaking four sports dietitians of their very own in London to help shepherd them through what to eat and drink before and after training and competition. A dietician can be a help if you're pushing your body to its limit.

2. One size does not fit all for nutrition advice. Not only are an archery contender's needs different from a basketball player's, but the soccer goalie's needs also differ from the midfielder's. Senior USOC dietitian Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CCSD finds cookie-cutter nutritional info to be less than fully helpful and instead tailors her advice to meet the physiological needs of the athlete, the sport, and the position.

3. Calories are not the cornerstone of eating in the Olympic world. Michael Phelps' rumored 12,000 calorie/day intake is the food-fantasy legends are made of. Both Phelps and dietitians scoff at this figure, stating a true intake closer to 7,000-8,000, far in excess of the 2,000 plus/day range for most men. Some dietitians and athletes actually prefer listening to one's body to counting calories. That's a fine strategy for these energy-burning athletes but nixing calorie counts altogether will leave many regular people packing a few extra pounds.

4. Both carbs and protein are on their plates. I believe in balance and was thrilled to find that sports nutrition research puts us on the same page. They are not just packing protein or carb loading to within an inch of their lives. They are eating both. Fruits, veggies and whole grains vs. refined sugars are their carbs of choice. Carb-rich foods give them the muscle glycogen stores they need for fuel while protein helps the muscles repair.

Dolan describes the women's volleyball team as dining on oatmeal, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, English muffins with PBJ and bananas, smoothies, fresh fruit, hummus and veggies, sandwiches or wraps - a solid blend of carbs and protein. Smoothies and pasta are all-round favorites and salmon, tuna (think Omega 3's) and chicken are protein staples for many of the athletes. Turkey sandwiches are also a favorite snack. The list can also be translated into the same foods we should be eating (just less).

5. Rainbows rule. The message to eat a wide range of colors every day is resonating with many Olympians, including volleyball powerhouses Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings. This simple mantra is easy enough for everyone to remember and guarantees a great start at packing in a broad range of flavors, textures, and nutrients.

6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. It's no surprise that the athletes have to replenish fluids at regular intervals with water, fruit juice or a sports drink. Plain old water remains the fluid of choice for many. The surprise is that a little underhydration actually trumps overhydration. Believe it or not, swimmers are the most likely to become dehydrated because they can't get out of the pool to take a sip.

7. Everything in moderation. The dietitians come with a disclaimer. They are not, in fact, the food police. Instead, they promote healthful eating at the core with a little wiggle room for moderation. Ryan Lochte was a long way from moderation when a typical breakfast consisted of 2-3 Egg McMuffins, hash browns and a chicken sandwich. He capped it off with 3-4 sodas/day and a bag of chips for a pre-training snack. He's turned the corner to scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and fruit for breakfast, wraps and salads for lunch, and 3-4 sodas/week. Could the dietary changes be responsible for his stellar performance Saturday? We'll never know for sure but we do know one thing. Healthier food choices undoubtedly helped propel him to the finish line.

It might be worth taking a lesson.