As the 2012 Olympic games begin, we can all look and admire the rock-hard, chiseled bodies of the Olympic athletes. Clearly, consistent training + clean eating = an amazing physique. But have you ever wondered what Olympians eat?
You May Not Be Able to Compete with Them
But Here’s How to Eat Like Them
I huddled with other sports nutritionists who work with U.S. Olympians – from gymnasts and cyclists to swimmers, weightlifters and sprinters – to compile the top-10 favorite foods of U.S. Olympians. You may be surprised at the competition-worthy eats. The best athletes don’t subsist on protein powders or engineered bars or gels. Instead, they eat wholesome, real foods.
Oats and oatmeal are probably the most commonly eaten breakfast of athletes. It’s filling, inexpensive, easy to prepare and you can make it any way you want by adding various toppings. Many athletes like a dollop of peanut butter or yogurt for added protein while others like fruit and nuts. A cup of oatmeal provides 150 calories, 27 grams carbs, 4 grams fiber, 6 grams protein and no added sugar. It also has a low-to-moderate glycemic index making oats and oatmeal a quality carbohydrate choice.
That’s obvious to you, right? As the gold standard for protein, eggs are on the must-eat list of most amateur and professional athletes. A medium large egg has just over 6 grams of protein of the highest biological value (read: complete with all amino acids in the most digestible form), and they also contain 13 other vitamins and minerals – virtually everything you need except vitamin C.
Bananas are the ultimate sports fuel. They’re easier to eat, readily digestible and portable. You can peel and eat a banana in about 15 seconds flat. Rich in potassium, (an electrolyte, which is lost in sweat), a medium ‘nana supplies just over 10 percent of your daily potassium. Recent studies show that eating bananas and drinking water while exercising can provide the same performance-enhancing benefits of sports drinks but with the added benefits of all the other nutrients and antioxidants packed into a banana.
Surprised? I’m not. Protein is important for gaining and maintaining a lean body, and most of the athletes we spoke with aren’t shy about eating steak. A 3½-ounce serving of sirloin packs 30 grams of protein for just 210 calories. Lean beef is also rich in highly absorbable iron as well as B-vitamins and magnesium, selenium and zinc. Choose the skinniest cuts, those that have the words “round” or “loin” in their name (i.e. sirloin).
Yogurt is a top choice with athletes for it’s high quality whey protein and the important essential amino acid, leucine. Several studies show that whey protein can help athletes gain and retain muscle mass. Containers of rich and thick Greek yogurt are in the shopping carts of many professional athletes, and are one of the most popular snacks of the superstars.
Geek yogurt is strained to make it thicker and more concentrated so it provides more protein per ounce than regular yogurt and a serving (6 or 8 ounces) has about 25 grams protein – equivalent to 4 eggs or 3 ounces of lean beef. Enjoy plain nonfat or low-fat for the most nutrition with the least amount of calories, sugar and saturated fat.
Tins of tuna are one of the most relied upon protein sources for athletes on the road and for those looking for a quick protein source. A standard tin of tuna is 6 ounces and if you eat the whole tin, you’ll get 37.5 grams of protein in just 175 calories. That’s one of the best protein-to-calorie ratios of any food. But tuna is also beneficial because it’s one of the few fish that’s rich in omega 3-fatty acids. Omega-3s help stave off heart disease and are good for bones but they also help control inflammation, which helps speed recovery.
Despite the hoopla over low-carb and gluten-free diets, the majority of athletes still eat lots of pasta and the pasta is still the preferred pre-competition meal for many athletes. Pasta tastes great, is easy to make, versatile, and nearly 84 percent of pasta’s calories are from complex carbohydrates and 15 percent from protein and contains B-vitamins and iron. Choose whole-wheat options for more fiber and antioxidants.
No one can ignore the power of peanut butter. The stick-to-the-ribs sandwich staple provides long-lasting energy and has fueled many athletes on to win world championships and Olympic gold. Peanut butter has a modest 3½ grams protein per tablespoon, but it’s loaded with vitamin E, magnesium and B-vitamins necessary to convert food into energy.
Trail mix with all kinds of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and even chocolate pieces is probably the all-time favorite snack of athletes. Trail mix and nuts are high in calories but also provide a lot of essential nutrients including protein, fiber, B-vitamins and antioxidants. A 1-ounce serving has about 140 calories and a cup of trail mix can pack in 600+ calories, so it may pack more power than most weekend warriors need.
Nonfat and low-fat cottage cheese is one of the skinniest protein choices you can eat. An 8-ounce serving of low-fat cottage cheese provides 160 calories and 28 grams protein. In addition, cottage cheese provides more of the muscle-building amino acid, leucine, than most other foods. Cottage cheese is great for cooking and snacking and compared to yogurt, it has more protein, fewer calories and less sugar.
Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD is a Registered Dietitian, writer and contributor to many national news programs, including CNN, ABC World News Tonight, The Today Show, MTV and much more. She is the co-author of “Energy to Burn: The Ultimate Food and Nutrition Guide to Fuel Your Active Life,” a book on sports nutrition. For more information, please visit her blog “Appetite for Health.”
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