Welcome to our "Like An Olympian" series. During the 2012 London Olympics, HuffPost Healthy Living will take a look at lifestyle and fitness lessons from competitors, coaches and former Olympians alike. We recently had the opportunity to speak with U.S. Olympic Committee Nutritionist, Jennifer Gibson, Msc, RD, IOC DIP, who has been preparing many of the Team USA's top athletes for competition in London this summer.
I work with an interesting population: the combative and acrobatic sports. That means wrestling, fencing Tae Kwon Do -- things with weight classes that require managing weight really closely.
On the acrobatic side, it's diving, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, all of which require a lean physique and light body weight.
For most of my athletes, weight control is all about pretty restrictive diets. Basically, everything they put in their mouth has to be monitored and thought about. We usually use a phased diet approach. Six to eight weeks out, we change from the initial diet to one with more careful considerations. They can choose to go on strict plans with portions meted out, or they can just get serving guidelines and build their own meals.
Some athletes need to make a few behavioral changes: if they’re evening snackers, that’s something we phase out, for example.
Once we get to the restrictive diet, it’s an extreme situation: it’s not just about fitting into a dress. These guys have to be on the scale number or they don’t get on the mat. First, we’ll do an artificial weight loss from sweating out water weight. Then maybe a liquid diet for a few days. It’s an extreme world, because you have to be so precise on the scale. But these diets zoom in and out -- there are periods of coming back to a more liberal, less detailed approach on diet.
By contrast, with the aesthetic sports, it’s an ongoing, close attention to diet because they can’t afford to put on any extra weight or fat mass. You’re trying to propel your body through air -- dead weight will have an impact.
We create a strict daily diet. Even though there are off seasons, most of them train and compete year round. They have a whole food-based diet that’s very, very natural: regular meats, fresh fruits, nuts and seeds, veggies. These aren’t processed foods. That’s because it’s mainly the quality of food that’s how they’re getting their nutrients.
What we know is that you can get the same nutrition from convenience foods, but it won’t be of the same quality. The quality of the protein you get from chicken breast is just higher than what you’ll get from a powder. Their bodies are their jobs, so how they feel really determines how well they’ll succeed.
A lot of the athletes aren’t using supplements because they have to be careful from a doping perspective -- you don’t really know what’s in a lot of them. There have been cases of supplements containing banned substances. This is starting to be regulated and it’s getting better, but it isn’t guaranteed.
With real food, they know what it is and what the quality of the nutrition will be. Of course, athletes will use bars, powders and gels, especially for convenience while traveling, but it isn’t the main resource we use.
I’d say that Olympic athletes suffer from many of the same challenges and problems that regular people face when it comes to nutrition and diet. Just like at home, here they have a lot of choice and variety: there’s an ice cream machine. They struggle with temptation and boredom eating. When they aren’t at a training facility, they’re living on their own, cooking and shopping. Between jobs and training, they can be sometimes too exhausted to plan their eating right -- that’s very similar to a lot of us.
Also similar, most of them are on a strict budget. In amateur sport, you aren’t making a lot of money. And they also travel for work: they’re navigating changing time zones and cultural food environments.
There are differences, too, mostly related to training. If they train too hard, for example, they lose their appetites. So if it’s a high volume training block or week and it’s very strenuous, they’ll struggle to eat. On the other side, much of training makes you hungry, so they also struggle with increased hunger.
But here are some takeaways for everyone:
All they’re doing is eating, sleeping, training -- there’s a lot of down time. So they’ll eat out of boredom, stress, comfort, anxiety … a lot of emotional things. The key there is to just be really self-reflective and aware of what your relationship to food is. Once they find the trigger, we try to divert their habit a bit; if it’s anxiety, for example, we’ll try breathing techniques. If it’s boredom, it’s about finding something else to fill the breaks in between training sessions. A lot of athletes are night snackers, so we do evening walks to break the habit.
An evening walk is almost like walking a dog without the dog. You just put your iPod on and go for a walk, just to change the behavior about. We work around emotionally charged habits. We ask the athletes: are you physically hungry or are you psychologically hungry? Sometimes the hunger is a feeling that you should eat: is it because you did your cardio and feel like you deserve something?
If it’s truly physical hunger, we adjust when the athletes are snacking, talk them through hydration to make sure that isn’t causing the hunger. We also check in about planning throughout the day. If you’re hungry at 4 p.m. because you had a skimpy lunch, then we know how to change things to fuel for activity.
It’s important to avoid really dire hunger situations. Once you get to that point, you’re more likely to overeat and make poor choices. If you’re hungry, your body’s telling you something. A balanced snack is something that’s high in protein: Greek yogurt, for example. Or trail mix and milk, that’s a blend of carbs. Or maybe for that day, it makes sense to bump up your lunchtime. Just avoid driving yourself into the deep hunger zone.
If you want to get serious about nutrition, it’s important that you seek help of nutrition professional. Making that small investment in yourself will help so much more than those generalized approaches. Most registered dietitians will have different counseling packages. And obviously, a person’s individual needs dictate the duration of counseling. If you need help with accountability, you might need ten sessions. If you just want some basic information and you’re pretty self motivated, you can get away with just one or a few sessions.
Often times, people will spend money on supplements, books, and prepackaged food. That’s cool, but you’re spending the money anyway. You might as well go to the people who are trained to do this and get that individualized programming.
A lot of times, when they take up an exercise program, people expect to lose weight and don’t. I’ve known people who gained weight while training for marathons. It’s all about appreciating how many calories you are really burning. Exercise is always great. But if you’re going for a 30-minute run, that’s not 1,000 calories. The Olympic athletes I work with are training four, six, sometimes eight hours a day. That’s exponentially higher than the average person because their job is to be an athlete. If you’re exercising, fantastic. If you’re exercising for weight loss, you don’t need to eat more. It’s the calorie deficit you create by working out that will help.
Eat Real Food
Going to food first is not only possible. It’s a good idea. The highest achieving athlete, who is training eight hours a day, 95 percent of his diet is whole and real foods. You don’t have to lean on potions or pills. Food is the best source of nutrients. It’s not as sexy as some new seed from the Amazon, but 99 percent of the time, people get their nutritional material from food. You might need to supplement, but if these athletes can do with food, so can you.
As told to Meredith Melnick. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.
For more from our "Like An Olympian" series, click here.
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