I think a lot of people assume that professional athletes have their nutrition dialed in pretty tight. You can probably imagine them existing off of nothing but salads, oatmeal, cashew milk, some rice, a whole lot of protein, and a boatload of supplements. You can’t train at the intensity they do for the number of hours they do and perform well without solid nutrition, that’s a no-brainer. But how they really eat might surprise you.
What Athletes Eat
For a few short days in the summer of 2016, I had an amazing opportunity to help prepare some meals for the Canadian Women’s Track Endurance Team.
I met the team and their dietitian to get the low-down on their schedule, the menu, food preferences and dietary restrictions. For a few days, I went into the home they were staying at during training camp and cooked them lunch, dinner, and sometimes even dessert 😉
I also got the chance to watch a few of their training session. Let me tell you, just watching them put in the effort out on the track, go flying past me in perfect formation and carefully execute their exchanges was one of the coolest and most memorable experiences. These ladies were totally down-to-earth, but there’s just something about being in the presence of such immense work ethic, grit, determination, and talent that gives you chills.
High Performance Nutrition for Everyday Life
Not only was it a pretty cool experience, but it was also an opportunity to do some learning that I am finally getting around to sharing with all of you. I took away a few valuable lessons I think we could all benefit from, seeing as how the media and our food environment have gotten pretty good at complicating the rather simple story of what good nutrition really means.
What this is not, is yet another article detailing what an athlete ate in a day; both because following their exact diet won’t work, and because it doesn’t matter. They are them and you are you and eating like someone else doesn’t get you their results. As much as you think you need a list of foods to include, foods to avoid, and a meal plan in order to finally achieve the healthy lifestyle you want, you don’t. You don’t need any of that. You don’t need food rules, or a wagon to fall off of.
What I think we could all benefit from is some freedom from the complicated relationships with food that are so easily developed, and a little perspective. Here are the three main takeaways from my experience feeding Olympic athletes and how you can apply these principles to your everyday life for better nutrition, more energy, and a healthier relationship with food.
1. Eat real food
Roasted broccoli pesto pasta with white beans and walnuts
Peanut noodle bowls with chicken
Spring pea risotto
Salted chocolate chip cookies
Beet salad with pumpkin seeds, goat cheese and wheat berries
These were just a few of the items that made it onto the athletes’ plates. Sounds like real food, right! I’m not even trying to fool you. When I say banana bread I literally mean banana, sugar, flour, and butter. It wasn’t low-carb, low-fat healthified banana bread. Same went for the lasagna. Cheese, tomato sauce, fresh herbs, and regular gluten-containing noodles, made from scratch, with fresh, good quality ingredients, and love.
Of course it wasn’t all lasagna, and banana bread and cookies, but the focus was undeniably on good quality whole foods. Their meals were bright, and colourful and (hopefully) full of flavour too! Dry, bland chicken breast with broccoli and rice never appeared on the menu. Instead, variety and flavour were the name of the game, and most importantly, things like banana bread, chocolate chip cookies and lasagna were not off limits.
2. Don’t fear carbs
For those that eat low-carb, cut out grains, avoid fruit etc, I understand that everyone has their different reasons. But, I’m willing to bet the majority of those reasons have to do with losing body fat and achieving an athletic aesthetic to some degree or another. The ironic part is that the very people’s bodies you might be striving to emulate (this is a whole other issue that needs a whole other post) are the same bodies that get fed the very carbs you are desperately fighting cravings trying to avoid.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess what you might be thinking.
“Yeah, but the training volume of these athletes is significantly higher than mine is, so of course they can get away with eating carbs!”
Yes, of course, that’s an important distinction, but not totally. You do not need to be training twice a day at an extremely high intensity to earn your carbs. Even if you’re doing light to moderate exercise for 30 minutes per day, you still need carbs, and they will not get in the way of you achieving your goals.
Carbohydrate quality is the piece of the puzzle that most people miss out on. When people cut carbs or go on a low-carb or no-carb diet, they tend to lump all carbohydrate sources together and put a big mental X through the whole group. Candy, cake, crackers, bread, pasta, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and fruit all have one thing in common: they provide a good amount of carbohydrate. However, this is where the similarities end. I think you see where I’m going with this.
The key to carbs when it comes to good, sound nutrition is focusing on those high quality carbohydrate sources that are rich in nutrients and fibre: fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains. You can enjoy these carbs while limiting (not eliminating) the more processed, junky ones. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and in fact, it really shouldn’t be.
The other piece is timing. Spread those carbs throughout the day by including a little at each meal and snack instead of eating low- or no-carb for breakfast and lunch which will inevitably lead you to binge in the evenings.
3. High quality, whole food protein is best
Last but not least, I will wrap things up with a short but sweet mention of protein; every health and fitness conscious person’s favourite macronutrient. As important as it is to get enough protein, these ladies were able to meet their elevated needs without constantly downing protein shakes or us baking protein powder into their cookies! Again, the focus was on variety and real food.
Another thing that may come as a surprise is that it wasn’t always chicken and fish, or even animal-based for that matter. While each athlete has their own preferences, they proved that it was definitely possible to perform at the top of their game by including some plant-based meals.
Insight From An Olympic Athlete
I reached out to one of the athletes, the seriously cool Georgia Simmerling (if you’re not familiar with her, look her up!) to see if she would share a comment on what good nutrition means to her as a 3x multi-sport Olympian. Here’s her response:
Being an elite athlete has been the major focus in my life for over a decade now. It is my job. My body has had to perform and be primed for many years. I have learned through trial and error and lots of experience what my body needs to perform at its best.
My body is essentially my engine. I have come to learn over the years that what my body needs most is the essentials – my body needs real food. It needs simple food.
I don’t have a strict diet. I have to be flexible because I travel all over the globe which forces me to eat different ethnic cuisines. I often cannot choose the specifics of my diet, but I do have choices to a certain degree, and when I do, I keep it simple, I stick to real foods. Whole foods.
I stay away from canned food, packaged food, frozen food, and above all processed food. I don’t need a certain amount of carbs or proteins in every meal to perform. But trust me, I eat carbs, and I eat a lot of food. I stick to dark leafy greens, whole grains, and protein, but animal protein is not a must. I’d say I eat meat every 3 days or so. I can get all the nutrients my body needs and more by eating whole food sources of grains and legumes.
Keep it simple people, and don’t be shy to have that apple pie and ice cream! 😉
Aside from this being one of the coolest experiences, I think the principles I shared above are important ones for us all to think about and internalize. We often over-complicate good nutrition – becoming too concerned with the latest fad diets and superfoods while losing sight of the goodness of a simple whole foods diet. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be high quality – not for Olympic athletes, and certainly not for you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Did any of the above surprise you? Do you struggle with this idea that good nutrition can be simple? Drop me a comment below and let’s have a conversation!