The Olympic diet: what do athletes eat?

August 21, 2008 by  

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We all know that our diet is a key factor to being and keeping healthy. It is the food we eat that provides us the energy to perform our daily activities – it is what keeps our heart pumping. Now, we get to wonder, what do high performance athletes eat? What gives them the energy, the power to run, swim, jump or lift weights faster and better than non-athletic people like you and me?

Here are some examples of what Olympic athletes eat on a normal day.


Gymnastics is an example of anaerobic physical activity. The gymnasts need strong spurts of energy for short periods of time to jump, flip, swing and perform somersaults.

In this msnbc report, gymnasts like Stephen McCain go for the low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.

Most gymnasts try to get between 60 percent and 70 percent of their calories from proteins (like meats and cheeses), the rest from carbs (like whole-grain pasta, fruits, vegetables) and fats (like oils from peanuts).

Of course gymnastics is a special sports where weight is highly relevant to performance. Gymnasts have to closely watch their calorie intake to keep down their weight.

Other anaerobic sport sports such as weight lifting and shot put, put less emphasis on weight but more muscle growth and therefore have other dietary requirements. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), for example, recommends body builders to eat

…a pre-exercise snack that includes a combination of carbs (for energy) and protein (for muscle building): cereal with milk, yogurt and a banana, bagel with peanut butter, trail mix (nuts and dried fruit), or a turkey sandwich”.

In addition, ACSM warns of the danger of undereating, especially among female athletes who strictly control their weight. Undereating can lead to shortage of calories needed for strenuous exercise, resulting in amenorrhea (irregular menstrual cycle) and iron deficiency anemia


Now, how about eating a thousand calories every hour? Unthinkable? Well, that´s what Michael Phelps, winner of 8 gold medals in swimming require during rigorous training and competition, according to a report at WebMD. On a normal day, he can easily take in 6000 to 8000 calories in pizza and pasta.

Unlike gymnastics, swimming is an aerobic sports that requires prolonged energy output. High calorie, high carbohydrate diet is what endurance athletes like Phelps need. However, they need to make sure that calories intake is well-distributed all throughout the day and certainly no big intake immediately before a race. High calorie foods with small volume are especially recommended so that “granola with fruit and yogurt would be a better choice than flake cereal with milk.”

Nutritional requirements of athletes differ from those of “mere mortals” like us. For more information about good dietary habits, check out The Dietary Guidelines for Americans published jointly every 5 years by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).


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One Response to “The Olympic diet: what do athletes eat?”
  1. Chris Ramage says:

    Informative and enlightening!

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