August 05, 2008

Shortly before she left for the Olympic Games in Beijing, I met my friend Kristin Armstrong (pictured at left) for a farewell dinner in San José, Calif. She was off to compete in the women's road and time trial cycling events at the Olympic Games—and no, she's not related to Lance. (Update: On August 13, Armstrong became the second U.S. woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling.)

For her last stateside dinner for the next few weeks, I expected Kristin to really chow down—maybe get a big, juicy steak, a hamburger, or a heaping plate of pasta and a ginormous slice of chocolate cake to top off the years of hard training. Nope; she ordered a hummus salad, the same one I planned to order, although she beat me to it. She had an iced tea and proceeded to sweeten it with a sugar substitute, not even real sugar! And no dessert.

Sitting next to her, I couldn't help but noticed how ripped her arms and abs were, clearly from being disciplined about her rigorous training schedule. But she also tells me that, at 34 years old, she's like any other woman: She needs to watch what she eats or else she'll gain weight, and her performance will suffer.

Therefore, her diet is made up of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables and whole grains that help keep her full. She reads labels and tries to avoid products with high-fructose corn syrup or too much added sugar, and she limits her liquid calories to primarily on-the-bike sports drinks.

I have counseled numerous weekend warriors as well as world-champion athletes, and regardless of the athletic accomplishments and hours spent training, many still have a hard time maintaining their "ideal" weight. But one thing most great athletes do share is a better understanding of how food fits into their lives.

If we ate like Olympians, we'd all be a lot better off. Most will say that their athletic physiques have at least as much to do with what and how they eat than how much they exercise. Many have also told me that their biggest breakthrough performances have occurred after focusing on their diet, and not eating whatever, whenever.

Here, some of the best advice that I have gleaned not just from my dinner with Kristin, but also from other top-level athletes.

Get in tune with what your body needs
Instead of eating the same-size meals and snacks day in and day out, top athletes match what they eat to how much they exercise. They recognize hunger and fullness, eat when they're hungry, and stop when they're full. When they aren't training hard, they cut back on their portions to match their calories with their energy output. That's why most athletes can maintain close to the same body weight year-round, regardless of whether they are preparing for the Olympics or resting in the off-season.

Make dinner yourself
Most of the athletes I know should be in reality-show cooking competitions: They are excellent chefs and have a keen interest in buying the freshest ingredients and making wonderful meals. I always love when we have professional athletes visiting us because I know I'll get healthy meals every night. (I myself married an ex-pro, who now runs the kitchen at our house.)

Eat with purpose
Athletes look at food as necessary fuel for their bodies. They believe that if they put junk in, they get junk out. Most eat diets that are rich in carbohydrates and have smaller amounts of protein and fat. Alcohol is generally reserved for special occasions. They eat a lot of fresh fruit, salads, and whole grains, and they pair protein with carbohydrates whenever possible. That can help us nonathletes too, since protein enhances satiety to keep us fuller longer.

Start your day with a big breakfast
Kristin and most other athletes I know have a big breakfast to fuel their day. Sometimes they even eat two morning meals—one small one before working out, then one immediately after. The most common breakfast I have seen among athletes is oatmeal. Many say that the slowly digesting carbs keep them fueled throughout the day. They'll also add a little peanut butter or nonfat yogurt to boost up the protein content. Cold cereal is a big fave as well, and many athletes will mix two to four different cereals at a time, or mix cold cereal with their oatmeal for some crunch.

Monitor your weight
Think that athletes never step on a scale? Wrong. In fact, most either have their body fat measurements taken or monitor their weight on a scale at least weekly. Many actually weigh themselves before and after their workouts—not because they're weight-obsessed, but to manage their hydration needs. Being constantly aware of their weight keeps them in tune with their food needs, as well, and it can help all of us stay on track with eating and weight loss goals.

All that said, there's no question that the 28,000 competitors, coaches, and staff at the Summer Games will be ingesting—and expending—their fair share of calories over the next month. Here (courtesy of Olympic food provider Aramark), an idea of what's being served during the 3.5 million meals at the Athlete's Village in Beijing.

  • More than 1 million apples
  • 936,000 bananas
  • 312,000 oranges
  • 684,000 carrots
  • 93,000 pounds of seafood
  • 260,000 pounds of meat
  • 38,000 pounds of pasta (dry)
  • 134,000 pounds of rice (dry)
  • 70,000 gallons of milk
  • 400,000 boxes of cereal
  • More than 800,000 eggs

By Julie Upton, RD

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