Idolizing Olympians (And What’s On Their Plates)

by Lara Goodrich Ezor

When the Olympics roll around, I always anticipate high levels of procrastination and fascination that accompany this worldwide athletic competition. We put aside our regular duties and watch  (often in horror) as athletes take tumbles or achieve glorifying perfection. In an instant, a life’s worth of grueling training culminates for the whole world to see.

During the two-week Olympic media frenzy, we want exclusive access into the lives of these impeccably trained and disciplined individuals. We must know their secrets to achieving ultimate success. And increasingly, we’re taking a closer look at what’s on their plates.

In the wake of his victorious 2008 Olympic performance, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps was reported to consume up to 12,000 calories during a peak training day. On his menu: pancakes, omelets, ham and cheese sandwiches, and a boatload of pasta. Given the number of calories Phelps burned during a day in the pool, his diet was all about quantity. And though his 12,000 calorie-a-day diet has been debunked, fascination with the food choices of elite athletes has only just begun.

Highly competitive athletes are always on the lookout for ways to improve their performance in order to gain the slightest advantage. Staying fueled is key, and most professional athletes eat at least six times per day. But despite burning calories for a living, many are closely scrutinizing the quality of their food choices, rather than simply adjusting the quantity. While Phelps reportedly noshed on French toast, U.S. Swimmer Ryan Lochte claimed to have cut out sweets and soda from his diet. And the 2014 U.S. women’s hockey team had a full-time nutritionist on board to fuel the team and give them “a little edge.”

Amid the international showcase, US media coverage naturally focuses on American athletes. However, clearly, there are elite athletes from the world over where pancakes and eggs are not for breakfast and where the “diet of champions” looks quite different. For instance, in 2012 Jamaican sprinter, Johan Blake, claimed to eat 16 bananas in a day. And a study of the diets of Kenyan runners found that the elite distance athletes consume mostly corn porridge, potatoes, cabbage, beans, bread and very little meat, without taking nutritional or sports supplements. On this simple diet, the world’s best runners have excelled.

The Winter Olympics pose a particular challenge for athletes, who must remain fueled and ready to perform in potentially extreme conditions, including cold temperatures and high altitude. A study by Meyer et al (2011) found that effective fueling is most difficult for cross-country skiers, ski jumpers and athletes competing in multiple rounds or heats. They require frequent meals and high-calorie diets. But in other winter sports where appearance is of great import, such as figure skating, athletes may actually cut back on calories leading up to an event in order to feel and appear lithe and lean. While a cross-country skier may consume over 4,000 calories per day, a figure skater may consume less than 2,000.

In the wake of the Olympics, we may see some new diets touted as the key to athletic success. Yet, the diets of elite athletes – and the media’s coverage of them – are as varied as the athletes themselves.

The only consensus emerging from the media coverage seems to be that no two bodies, preferences, sports or events have identical nutritional needs. And that – 12,000 calories or not – nobody gets to eat as much as Michael Phelps.

 Lara Goodrich Ezor is a first-year FPAN student, who once thought she would become an Olympic gymnast, runner and/or figure skater. Instead, she cooks and reads a lot in Somerville. To learn more about her, visit our Meet Our Writers page.

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