Friday, July 27, 2012

Nutrition of the Olympians

Jennifer Koslo, PhD, RD, CSSD, CPT
FT Faculty
School of Health Sciences
The opening ceremony for the 2012 summer Olympic Games is set for today, Friday, July 27th in London. I can’t wait to watch. What about you? The summer games are my favorite since they include the running and cycling activities and I get to live vicariously through the athletes and imagine myself running as a Team USA marathoner or triathlete. Ah, one can dream right? So you know when it comes to excelling at athletics 3 things must align: genetics, nutrition and training. There’s nothing you can do to change your genetics, so when it comes to making team USA it is all about training and nutrition.
What does an Olympic athlete eat?
One of the first up close and personal looks at the diet of an Olympian came when Michael Phelps hit the swimming scene. You may remember how the media publicized his very high calorie diet that included a lot of good and not so good food choices.  But hey, he was burning a ton of calories and obviously had the training and genetics down, right? Team USA has a whole crew of registered dietitians (RD) who are also certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD) who track the intake of and plan the meals of all of the athletes. It is based on science because there is no room for guessing when it comes to the food and hydration necessary to fuel these athletes. Even a miniscule drop in performance can be the difference between winning the gold and finishing third or fourth in an Olympic event.
Specialized Support
There is no one-size fits all approach to nutrition. Each athlete has unique needs influenced by the demands placed on their body of their respective sport. The dietitians must ensure that the athletes eat and drink the right type of fluid and fuel at the right time and in the right amount. They also assess the needs of the athletes to see if any supplements are warranted and appropriate. Supplementation is an area that is under great scrutiny especially at this level, and only supplements that are tested to be free of banned substances are used. There are very few select supplements that are supported through research and legal in the Games, two of which are creatine and caffeine in controlled amounts. There is a published list of prohibited substances that can be found on the World-Anti Doping Website and it includes substances such as anabolic agents, diuretics, and blood doping agents to name a few. They also break it down by sport. The IOC takes a hard stance on supplementation and doesn’t accept inadvertent doping (using a supplement that was contaminated) as an excuse.
From what I have learned from my esteemed colleagues who work with Olympic athletes, the emphasis is ALWAYS on food first and supplements second and only when necessary and where warranted.
As you are watching the games, think about the fine tuning the athletes have done with their nutrition in the hopes of gaining that edge. Then maybe assess your current intake and think about whether or not there are some changes you can make in your eating strategy that could enhance your performance. Food first, supplements second. Game on!


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