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Paris Games 2024: How to Eat Like a Champion

Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.

By: Sara Butler


There was a story circulating during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games that Micheal Phelps consumed almost 12,000 calories per day at the height of his training for the Olympics. Of course, how to fit 12,000 calories into a day is a challenge, but depending on how tasty those calories were, perhaps a challenge worthy of taking on. Phelps clarified in his autobiography that the 12,000-calorie diet was a myth; he only ate about 10,000 calories.

The reality is that most people, even those who are inspired to train like Olympic athletes, do not need 10,000 calories per day to do it right. Eating like elite athletes requires far less intake. Sports nutrition that has you eating like an Olympian isn't as complicated or as intense as you may think.

How do Olympic athletes fuel their bodies for optimal performance?

Olympic athletes follow specific nutrition plans crafted to fuel their bodies for the best performance. Olympic athletes follow a few simple ideas to reach their peak.

Macronutrient balance - Athletes need a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Carbohydrates provide energy for workouts and competitions, proteins help muscle grow and repair, and fats are vital for hormone regulation and overall health.

Timing of meals - Timing is crucial. Athletes often eat a meal rich in carbohydrates and protein about two to four hours before training or competing. They also consume smaller snacks closer to the event to maintain energy levels.

Hydration - Proper hydration is important for performance. Athletes drink plenty of water and consume electrolyte-rich drinks during intense workouts. This helps to replace lost fluids and minerals.

Specialized diets - Some athletes follow specialized diets tailored to their sport or individual needs. Endurance athletes may follow high-carbohydrate diets, while strength athletes may focus more on protein.

Supplementation - Whole foods are the foundation of a healthy diet, but some athletes use supplements to fill nutritional gaps. Athletes use supplements like protein powders, creatine, and vitamins/minerals.

Post-exercise nutrition - After training or competition, athletes recover by consuming a combination of carbohydrates and protein. This helps to replenish glycogen stores and promote muscle repair. It can help with soreness, too.

Personalization - Nutrition plans are highly individualized. It is based on factors like body composition, metabolic rate, training intensity, and dietary preferences.

Monitoring and adjustments - Coaches and nutritionists closely monitor athletes' performance and make adjustments to their nutrition plans as needed to help them meet their goals.

How does the mindset and approach to eating differ for Olympic athletes?

Olympic athletes tend to think differently about the food they use to fuel their bodies than the general public. But that doesn't mean you can't adopt their mindset to help you reach your personal athletic goals.

Viewing food as fuel - Olympic athletes see food primarily as fuel for their bodies. They prioritize nutrient-dense foods that will optimize their performance and recovery.

Precision and planning - Athletes meticulously plan their meals and snacks to ensure they're getting the right balance of nutrients at the right times. This often involves working closely with nutritionists to create personalized meal plans tailored to their training and competition schedules.

Performance enhancement - Olympic athletes understand that what they eat directly impacts their performance. Therefore, they are more inclined to choose foods that support their training goals and enhance their athletic abilities rather than just eating for taste or convenience.

Quality over quantity - Instead of focusing solely on calorie counting, athletes prioritize the quality of their food choices. They aim to consume whole, nutrient-rich foods that provide the necessary vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients their bodies need to perform at their best.

Mindful eating - While athletes are disciplined about their nutrition, they also practice mindful eating. This means paying attention to hunger and fullness cues, as well as being present and aware of their food choices rather than mindlessly consuming calories.

Flexibility and adaptability - While they stick to their nutrition plans most of the time, Olympic athletes also understand the importance of flexibility. They may make adjustments to their diet based on changes in their training schedule, travel, or individual preferences.

Recovery focus - Athletes recognize that proper nutrition is essential for recovery and injury prevention. They prioritize post-exercise meals and snacks that support muscle repair, glycogen replenishment, and hydration to ensure they're ready for their next training session or competition.

Long-term health - While their immediate focus may be on performance, Olympic athletes also consider the long-term health implications of their dietary choices. They aim to maintain a balanced diet that supports their athletic endeavors and their overall health and well-being throughout their careers and beyond.

What do they serve athletes during the Olympic Games?

During the Olympic Games, athletes are provided with a wide range of food options to meet their nutritional needs and preferences. The Olympic Village typically features a large dining hall. It offers a variety of cuisines to accommodate athletes from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Nutrient-dense meals - The dining hall serves balanced meals that include lean proteins (such as chicken, fish, and tofu), complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, pasta, and potatoes), and plenty of fruits and vegetables. These work to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

International cuisine - Athletes have access to a diverse selection of international cuisines. It's important to reflect the cultural diversity of the Olympic community. They can enjoy dishes from around the world.

Customization and dietary restrictions - The dining hall caters to athletes with dietary restrictions or special dietary needs. There are typically options available for vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free diets, and other specific preferences or allergies.

Hydration stations - Hydration is crucial for athletes, so there are hydration stations throughout the Olympic Village. They offer water, sports drinks, and electrolyte beverages to keep athletes properly hydrated before, during, and after competitions.

Snack stations - In addition to main meals, there are snack stations available. They are stocked with a variety of healthy snacks such as nuts, seeds, yogurt, granola bars, fresh fruit, and trail mix for athletes to fuel up between meals or grab a quick bite before training sessions.

Recovery stations - Specialized recovery stations may be available, offering post-workout or post-competition snacks and beverages. They are designed to promote muscle recovery, replenish glycogen stores, and aid in hydration.

Performance supplements - Athletes may have access to approved performance supplements such as protein powders, energy bars, and sports drinks to support their training and competition efforts. However, strict regulations and anti-doping policies govern the use of supplements per the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) guidelines.

What food groups and foods are emphasized for Olympic athletes?

Olympic athletes emphasize foods from a variety of food groups to support their training, performance, and overall health. While individual needs may vary based on factors such as sport, training intensity, and personal preferences, there are food groups and specific foods that are commonly emphasized for Olympic athletes that translate well to the diets of non-Olympic athletes.

Carbohydrates - Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for athletes, particularly during high-intensity training and competitions. Carbohydrate-rich foods include whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Protein - Protein is essential for muscle repair, recovery, and growth, making it crucial for athletes to include in their diets. Emphasized protein sources include lean meats such as chicken and pork, fish, dairy, and eggs, and plant-based protein such as beans and lentils.

Healthy fats - Healthy fats provide essential fatty acids and support hormone production, cell membrane function, and overall health. Highlighted sources of healthy fats include fatty fish such as salmon and trout, nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado, and butter made from nuts such as almond butter and peanut butter.

Fruits and Vegetables - Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. These are important for overall health, immune function, and recovery. Olympic athletes emphasize a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in their diets to ensure they receive a wide range of nutrients.

Key meal planning and prep tips for eating like an Olympian

Eating like an Olympian involves careful meal planning and preparation to ensure you're fueling your body with the nutrients it needs for optimal performance and recovery. Put some of these tips to work for you.

Set clear goals - Determine your specific nutritional needs based on your activity level, training intensity, and performance goals. This will guide your meal planning and help ensure you're consuming the right balance of macronutrients.

Plan - Take time to plan your meals and snacks for the week ahead. This could involve creating a weekly meal schedule, writing a shopping list, and prepping ingredients in advance to streamline the cooking process.

Focus on whole foods - Emphasize whole, nutrient-dense foods in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Prioritize timing - Pay attention to the timing of your meals and snacks, especially around workouts and competitions. Aim to eat a balanced meal containing carbohydrates and protein two to four hours before exercise. Refuel with a post-workout snack or meal within 30-60 minutes after training to support recovery.

Batch cooking - Think about cooking some staples for the week ahead of time, such as grains you'll eat, vegetables you'll use in recipes, or proteins you'll need to complete your meals. Doing this lets you throw together easy but nutritious meals throughout the week.

Prep portable snacks - Prepare nutritious, portable snacks that you can grab on the go. This could include items like homemade energy bars, trail mix, Greek yogurt with fruit, or cut-up vegetables with hummus.

Stay hydrated - Hydration is key for performance and overall health. Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day and aim to drink fluids regularly, especially before, during, and after exercise.

Listen to your body - Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues, and adjust your meal sizes and timing accordingly. Eating intuitively can help ensure you're meeting your energy needs without overeating or undereating.

Include variety - Keep your meals interesting and flavorful by incorporating a variety of foods and flavors into your diet. Experiment with different cuisines, cooking methods, and ingredients to keep things exciting. Remember, spices are your friend!

Seek professional guidance - If you're unsure about your nutritional needs or how to best fuel your body for your specific sport or goals, consider consulting with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition. They can provide personalized guidance and support to help you optimize your diet for peak performance.

Look, you're probably not going to need 12,000—or even 10,000—calories per day. But eating like an Olympian doesn't mean matching their caloric intake. The world-class athletes who compete every four years on the world's largest stage live by some principles that can apply to all of us.

No matter what you're training for, the key to a successful diet plan is commitment, follow-through, and planning. Anyone can do it—even those watching the Olympics from the comfort of their living room.

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