Eating Tips from Top Olympic Athletes

Olympic athletes depend on superior nutrition to fuel their grueling workouts, races, and competitions. They also have access to some of the top sports nutritionists and dietitians in the world, so you can bet that, for the most part, they know what they’re talking about when it comes to nutrition. The Olympics may be over, but these tips from gold medal winners and Olympic athletes last forever — read on for their healthy advice and how to implement it into your own eating routine.

“The more colorful the food, the better.” – Triple gold medalist Misty May-Treanor

Dietitians have long advised their clients, and the world, to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Generally, the most vibrantly hued fruits and vegetables offer the most nutrients — blackberries, for example, are so dark because they contain a huge amount of anthocyanins. Fast food, on the other hand, is often white and bland (French fries, chicken fingers, and burgers all fall into the brown/beige/white color spectrum for a reason – they’re void of nutrition!). And because the different pigments that are responsible for bright colors offer different health benefits, it’s important to eat a variety of colors. Red, purple and blue produce is high in anthocyanins, which boost cardiovascular health and cognitive function. Orange and yellow produce, like butternut squash and mangoes, are colored by carotenoids, pigments that boost eye and skin health, fight cancer, and even contribute a healthy glow to your skin! And green produce contains chlorophyll as well as lutein and zeaxanthin to boost immunity and reduce the risk of cancer.

Still, don’t automatically skip white fruits and vegetables. Lighter colored produce boasts unique nutrients too, like quercetin, beta-glucan, and lignans. Click here to read about the nutritional benefits of onions, garlic, mushrooms, bananas and jicama.

“Getting the right food in my body 30 minutes after working out helps so much more with the next workout and has really changed my training.” – Gold-medal swimmer Eric Shanteau

In an interview with People Magazine, Jennifer Aniston is quoted as saying “If you don’t want to build muscle, wait about an hour after you work out to eat.” But in this case, swimmer Eric Shanteau is right: eating within 30 minutes after a workout is absolutely essential to restoring glycogen stores and rebuilding muscle fibers. In fact, research shows that the body’s ability to top off muscle energy stores decreases by 50% if you wait more than two hours to eat — meaning that you won’t be seeing the toning and muscle building results of your workout routine. Plus, eating after a workout increases your body’s insulin sensitivity (an important factor in weight loss) and will fend off hunger attacks later. Aim for a snack that contains both protein and carbohydrates, like a peanut butter and apple sandwich, eggs and whole wheat toast, or fruit and yogurt.

“I don’t think that the occasional bowl of ice cream for dessert is necessarily too bad.” – Bronze-medal diver Nick McCrory

It might be surprising to hear a nutrition blog recommend ice cream — after all, it’s high in sugar, calories, and fat! But an important part of a healthy diet is balance, and balance includes eating those foods that might not be so healthy for you — in moderation. Indulging in your favorite treats, be it cheesecake, chocolate chip cookies, or mac and cheese, is okay every now and then, and it might even help you fight off cravings (denying yourself a bite of brownie day after day might end up in a brownie binge at the end of the week!). Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Dara Torres, who obviously manages to stay fit and toned, agrees: “It’s okay to have bites of food that probably aren’t the best for you because that way you won’t deprive yourself and then want more of that food.”

Even nutritionists and Registered Dietitians have splurges: flourless chocolate cake for Patricia Bannan, MS, RD, author of Eat Right When the Time is Tight and french fries for Rachel Meltzer Warren, MS, RD, a private practice nutritionist. But they’re smart about their splurges: they go for quality over quantity, don’t feel guilty, and balance them with plenty of fresh produce, lean protein, and whole grains.

“My mom raised me to believe that you have to treat your body like an expensive car–you have to put in the most expensive fuel.” – Gold medal gymnast Nastia Liukin

Whole, unprocessed foods — the equivalent of premium fuel — and processed, manufactured foods — the equivalent of low quality diesel — are the difference between feeling energized and lethargic, glowing skin and ruddy skin, and an awesome workout and a weak run. Foods in their natural state, like vegetables, fruits, and grains, are pre-packaged with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients to maximize nutrient intake and absorption. Foods that have been processed, like white bread, chips, and frozen entrees, are stripped of these nutrients, are pumped with preservatives, additives, trans fats and chemicals — and offer little more than calories. Picking whole foods over processed foods is also essential to long-term health: studies show that diets high in healthy, whole foods can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Processed foods can increase the risks of developing these diseases.

But Liukin isn’t entirely correct: high quality fuel doesn’t have to be expensive. Researchers from the USDA compared prices of seemingly healthy and less healthy foods, looking at price of edible weight, price per average portion, and price per calorie. In previous studies, “price per calorie was measured,” so the results suggested that healthy foods were far more expensive than less healthy foods. But when “price of edible weight” or “price per average portion” are examined, healthy foods beat out foods typically high in saturated fat, added sugar, or sodium. The Environmental Working Group has gathered a list of foods that are highest in nutrients and lowest in cost.  Topping the list is salmon, black beans, chickpeas, walnuts, low-fat or non-fat milk, broccoli, and pears.

“Before you start taking supplements, do the best job you can to get all your nutrients from your food. If I need to supplement some things I try to remember that it’s exactly that–it’s a supplement–it’s not a meal or a meal replacement.” – Gold medal decathlete Bryan Clay

There are more than 100,000 enzymes, 16 vitamins, more than 80 minerals, 20 amino acids, and around 100,000 phytonutrients that naturally occur in real, whole foods. Different foods offer a unique balance of these nutrients that work synergistically to enhance their performance and maximize health benefits. But researchers noticed these benefits, and attributed them to one prominent compound–and so the popularity of supplements began. According to newer research, our bodies can tell the difference between whole and fragmented foods. According to Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., the incidence of macular degeneration is significantly lower in people who eat foods rich in beta-carotene, like carrots and sweet potatoes. But the same benefits are not seen people who take beta-carotene supplements. The health benefits of foods are not attributable to one superstar nutrient: they’re due to the complex interaction of many vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

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