Sophia Kamveris, MS, RDN
With the 2021 Summer Olympics in full swing, I always like to share my own version of what I call Olympic Foods!
Ask an Olympian what they eat, and you are sure to get a variety of answers. While they all include the key nutrients to sufficiently fuel their bodies, each athlete will develop a meal plan specific to their individual needs. One thing is for certain: they all eat a lot of calories- all day long- to be able to meet their exorbitant energy needs. Some athletes can require up to 5,000 calories a day depending on the sport they are competing in and will rely on energy from a variety of fuel sources in the body. As important as it is to power your body for competition, it’s equally critical to re-fuel it post competition to ensure muscle recovery.
While we may not all be Olympians, it’s great to have a food-based approach to our diets when we hit the gym hard, too. Let’s look at the medal-worthy macronutrients that play an integral role in athletic performance:
Gold Medal: Carbohydrates are powerhouse nutrients that provide energy for all cells in the human body, especially the brain. Carbs provide the body with energy on a short-term basis, but once broken down into smaller units of sugar (glucose) can be stored as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles. Glycogen stores serve as energy reservoirs and become depleted based on the intensity and duration of exercise, so athletes practice “carbo-loading” to ensure an adequate supply of it.
Silver Medal: Proteins are made up of amino acids, and play a role in metabolism, hormone synthesis, immune systems, and in tissue repair and restoration. While it provides a small amount of fuel during exercise, it is vital in repairing damaged muscles in the recovery phase.
Bronze Medal: Fats are the most calorically dense, providing twice the amount of calories as the other macronutrients. They provide a source of stored energy and are also important for hormone and immune function. Furthermore, they act as an insulator to preserve body heat. Fats represent between 20-35% of an athlete’s total calories for the day and serve as the primary fuel source for low intensity and long endurance activities.
How to make it to the Podium: Staying well hydrated is critical for the athlete. When we exercise, our muscles generate heat. Sweating is the body’s response to avoid overheating, and water is a key element in regulating body temperature. For every one-pound lost with sweat, a person needs to drink 24 ounces of fluid to recover. Since all beverages hydrate (with the exception of alcohol), it’s a good idea to keep your favorite beverages on hand. Whether it’s a sparkling water or diet soda, sipping on fluids throughout the day helps to combat losses during work-outs.
We can all learn from the Olympian about eating a properly balanced diet abundant in calories and full of essential nutrients, coupled with a regular exercise routine.
Here are some examples of Olympic Foods that athletes eat, which can easily be added into your own regimen:
-Steel cut or rolled oats are packed with carbohydrates and fiber, which helps to stabilize blood sugars and keeps energy readily available. Mixing in ground flaxseeds or nuts adds heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
-Eggs are an excellent source of protein and are great for muscle recovery. They can be prepared in a variety of ways that make them desirable for a wide range of taste preferences. Enjoy them scrambled, as omelets with added vegetables and/or cheese, hard-boiled, or stuffed in wraps for “on the go”.
-Bananas are packed with carbohydrates, Vitamin B-6, and potassium, which helps prevent muscle cramping and spasms. Toss them in a gym bag, and they are easy to eat before or after exercise.
-Greek yogurt is a powerhouse of nutrition. Full of protein, mix in complex carbohydrates such as berries, granola, or muesli, and you have a great pre- and post-recovery food choice.
-Berries are good sources of fiber and Vitamin C and are rich in anthocyanin, a potent antioxidant that may help play a role in defending against heart disease and cancer.
-Salmon and tuna fish are high in protein and the essential omega 3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation and protect blood vessels.
-Quinoa is fast becoming a favorite for Olympians, even for breakfast. It’s a gluten free grain and is good source of protein, fiber, and magnesium.
-Pasta has always been a food favorite and a “menu-must” of athletes. Legume (my favorites!) and whole grain varieties are higher in fiber and help regulate blood sugars.
-Potatoes are a white vegetable packed with potassium and fiber. They contain a compound called allicin, which may help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
-Chocolate Milk: Providing both carbohydrates and protein, this is an athlete’s “go-to” post-exercise beverage to help promote muscle recovery.
-Kale: Whether steamed, or baked as a crispy snack, these cruciferous vegetables are rich in Vitamin K, C, and beta-carotene and contain compounds called indoles, which may help to prevent some cancers.
-Nut butters (almond and peanut) are nutrition powerhouses, full of protein and healthy fats that provide long acting energy and helps to better sustain blood sugars.
-Orange juice and coconut water are good potassium replacers, while sports drinks provide added carbohydrates and salts.
Enjoy the games!