Eat like an Olympian

The Olympics are less than four weeks away and the excitement is building.

The best thing about watching the Olympics (apart from seeing all those Team GB medals!) is watching humans surpass their own perceived limitations and achieve accomplishments that seem impossible. Citius, Altius, Fortius, indeed

Olympic athletes have to respect their bodies. After all, their bodies are what they rely on when it comes to winning gold. In addition to a constant regimen of mental training, most professional athletes (and let’s not kid ourselves, the athletes at the Olympics are professionals, no matter what the purists say) train several hours a day year round! They just don’t stop and it’s their diet that allows them to have the energy and stamina to work out at these levels

So what can we learn from them about the way they eat

1. Breakfast of champions

Your mother was right: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Don’t start the day with an empty fuel tank. If Olympians don’t eat an adequate breakfast, they won’t not have enough energy for a quality training session

Replenish your energy stores to ensure adequate fuel for competition or training. Have both carbohydrate and protein in your breakfast.  Protein will help maintain your glucose levels throughout the morning and stave off hunger, while carbohydrates will provide needed energy.

Pancakes with syrup, whole grain toast with jam, and orange juice are good breakfast choices. Add low fat yogurt, skim milk, lean sausage, eggs, or egg whites for protein.  Other healthy options include:

– Low fat yogurt and fresh fruit
– Smoothie made with fruit and low fat yogurt
– Whole grain cereal with skim milk and fruit
– Vegetable omelette with whole grain toast and orange juice
– Scrambled eggs and one-half of whole wheat bagel

2. Eat small amounts more frequently

Athletes eat all day long to maintain their energy levels. You won’t see them eat one huge meal in the hopes of having enough energy for the day, or skipping meals through the day and eating a huge dinner only

Instead of sitting down for three large meals a day, you should break it up by eating six “mini-meals” throughout the day. Eating every three to four hours (starting with breakfast) can improve lean body mass and decrease fat

Also, you can increase the intensity of your workouts and balance your metabolism by providing a steady amount of sugar. This doesn’t mean actual packets of sugar or sugar-rich candy. Instead try fruits, berries or nuts

3. Crank Up the Carbs

Some people believe carbohydrates should be significantly reduced or eliminated due to the promotion of low-to-no carbohydrate diets such as Atkins. However, for athletes, carbohydrates are extremely important and comprise 50 to 60 percent of their daily caloric intake

Explosive activities–including volleyball, basketball, and football–activate the creatine phosphate system, which is fuelled by carbohydrates

Not only are carbohydrates important for optimal physical performance, they help you concentrate, focus, and stay mentally sharp. You must consume enough carbohydrates to replace that day’s depletion and to prepare for your next training session

Good carbohydrate choices include:

– Breads: bagel, dinner rolls, muffins, pitta, sliced bread
– Cereals: bran, unsweetened, granola, oatmeal
– Grains: low fat muffin, pasta, pancakes, rice, crackers
– Vegetables: baked beans, corn, peas, potato

You should always aim for products made from whole grains whenever possible as they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that have powerful antioxidant properties that you can’t get from white bread and other refined products

4. Eat Protein (and it doesn’t have to be meat!)

Athletes need high levels of protein (15 to 20 percent of their daily caloric intake, which in absolute terms is much more than us mere mortals consume) to help repair and rebuild muscles broken down by physical activity and to aid in carbohydrate storage

Athletes eat protein with every meal and make sure their elevated protein requirements are met by a well planned diet:

Excellent protein sources include poultry, turkey, beef, pork, fish, low fat cheese, legumes (black, kidney, pinto beans, and chickpeas), egg whites, and soy products such as tofu

Although adequate levels of protein are important, keep in mind that excess protein is simply extra calories either burned for energy or stored as fat

When it comes to fuel, protein is less efficient than carbs. Get enough protein from your diet so your body doesn’t break down muscle to use the protein for fuel

Protein from both food and supplements increases your need for water.  Since your kidneys require more water for protein metabolism, individuals with liver or kidney problems are susceptible to negative effects of excessive dietary protein

5. Stay hydrated

Proper hydration is key to good nutrition. The body needs water to function, especially during intense training or exertion

Dehydration of as little as 2 percent body mass can:

– Decrease muscular strength
– Decrease muscular endurance
– Decrease anaerobic work capacity

Dehydration of 3 to 5 percent can result in increased risk of muscles cramps and heat exhaustion. Make sure you train with optimal fluid levels to help delay or minimize dehydration.

In fact, a good indicator of hydration is your urine. Ideally, urine should be clear to light yellow (lemonade color).  If your urine is darker yellow (apple juice color), it means you’re dehydrated and need to replenish your fluids. You can also easily monitor fluid loss and adjust your intake accordingly by weighing yourself before and after exercise

The majority of your hydration should come from water; however, sports drinks can help replace electrolytes which are lost during exercise. Just don’t glug sugary soft drinks all day!

6. Build a Strong Immune System

Illness is anathema to an Olympian. For them , the best way to prevent illnessduring a rigorous travel and training schedule is to have a strong immune system.  Eating right can help accomplish that goal

Stay healthy by stocking your diet with:

– Antioxidant-rich foods
– Vegetables, especially green leafy veggies and broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and carrots
– Fruit, especially berries, apples, and oranges
– Omega-3 and mono-unsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and seeds.
– Healthy fats; all fats are calorie-dense, so choose healthy fats such as avocados, olives, raw nuts/seeds, and ground flaxseed to meet your caloric needs
– Lean proteins, including: chicken breast (skin removed), turkey breast (skin removed), egg whites, fish fillet, shellfish,  lean beef, tuna (canned in water), non-fat cottage cheese and beans (black beans, kidney, chick peas or lentils)
– Fish and seafood, eggs, lean meats, low-fat dairy, legumes/beans, nuts and tofu

Without proper nutrition, an Olympian’s body will succumb to injury, illness, poor performance, and fatigue. Athletes not only train at levels that are incomprehensible to most of us, but they also eat very differently. You don’t have to be a ‘health food nut’ or nutrition expert, simply implement some of the above concepts into your daily routine and you’ll notice a positive difference in your energy levels and athletic performance

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