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VOL. 131 | NO. 172 | Monday, August 29, 2016

Eating to Win, Be It at the Olympics or in Daily Life, Takes Planning

By Don Wade

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The Rio 2016 Olympic Games were historically successful for Team USA, as Americans topped the medal chart in every category: 121 total medals, 46 golds, 37 silvers, and 38 bronzes.


Swimmer Michael Phelps added five more golds and a silver and now has 28 medals overall, 23 golds. Simone Biles became the first American to win four golds in gymnastics at a single Games.

Obviously, much talent and training went into all of this. But in recent years, it has become accepted that talent and training minus good nutrition does not lead to peak performance. With that in mind, we decided in the aftermath of the Games and with an eye toward the future, to consult with Blair Mize – a registered dietitian and co-owner of Memphis Nutrition Group MemphisNutritionGroup.com.

Here are her answers to some questions that are relevant for athletes, parents of athletes, and anyone who wants to eat better, feel better, and be at their best more often.

In general, what are the broad nutritional strategies for some of the Olympic champions we just finished watching?

Mize: Be proactive with nutrition, not reactive. When it comes to nutrition, Olympic champions have a plan in place, and they make eating a priority. Olympic athletes' nutrition strategies include fueling regularly throughout the day, and they time their eating just right in order to optimize their performance and recovery. Hydration is also crucial for the Olympic athlete, and hydrating must begin long before training and conditioning does. 

So what does that look like?

Mize: Focus on a food first foundation. Olympians don't rely on supplements to meet their nutritional needs. Instead, with the help of a sports dietitian, they evaluate their current dietary intake from food sources and utilize strategies to help improve any nutritional deficiencies or inadequacies before supplementation is (or should be) considered.

Safe to say you wouldn’t have the same plan for Michael Phelps as Simone Biles?

Mize: Dietary needs of athletes vary based on the athlete's performance goals, the events the athlete is participating in, sex, age, genetics, metabolism, food preferences, etc. Though they are both elite athletes, nutrition recommendations should be individualized to each of them and account for all of these factors and more. 

How about for middle school or high school athletes, what would you recommend?

Mize: Make meals non-negotiable. Many of the middle and high school athletes I work with tend to skip breakfast to get some extra shut-eye, or lunch in order to get schoolwork finished, or to accommodate their training schedule. Preparing and eating these meals doesn't take very long and by eating these meals the athlete is more likely to meet his or her nutrition needs. Here are a couple of examples:

(a) Breakfast: 2 eggs, slice of toast with peanut butter, banana, and milk or yogurt

(b) Lunch: Take last night's leftover flank steak, slice it up, and throw it on top of a mixed green salad with goat cheese, walnuts, dried cranberries and balsamic vinaigrette. Serve with a whole wheat roll. Leftover flank steak could also be used in a quick and easy quesadilla. The steak packs a powerful protein punch along with providing iron (athletes are particularly susceptible to iron deficiency), zinc, and B vitamins. 

And train athletes to hydrate. Avoid diets at all costs! Remind middle school and high school athletes of this quote (unsure of source): "Athletes eat and train. They don't diet and exercise." 

What about active people anywhere from age 35 to 75? How do they get the most nutritional bang for the buck, be they triathletes, tennis players or just regular folks who want to feel better and enjoy taking the dog on long walks?

Mize: Focus on real food. Whole, minimally processed foods with few ingredients (for the most part). Maximize variety to ensure they are eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fats, protein, etc. Maintain adequate hydration and eat regularly throughout the day. 

What are the three most common myths about sports nutrition?

Mize: (1) If you're cramping, you need more potassium in your diet. For example, athletes are often told to "eat a banana."

(2) Supplements are necessary for optimal performance.

(3) You should drink at least "x" ounces/cups of water per day. Athletes are often given recommendations that are too general when they'd really benefit from personalized recommendations.

How long does it take to change dietary habits and see positive effects?

Mize: Individuals can reap benefits from changes to dietary habits in just minutes while other changes may take longer to notice. For example, say an individual isn't eating adequate protein at dinner (aka a big bowl of pasta)...make the simple adjustment of including some grilled chicken or ground sirloin. Meals can be more satisfying, energizing, and can help to curb those late night cravings. 

In the long-term, individuals may benefit from a stronger immune system, lower disease risk, greater energy levels overall, and more.

How would you suggest getting started?

Mize: Set small, realistic goals. In our office, it's quite common for people to want to overhaul their eating patterns in one visit. Take it one day at a time, one meal or snack at a time. With this strategy of making gradual adjustments to eating patterns, self-care, hydration habits, and overall lifestyle, individuals are much more likely to experience bigger, more sustainable, long-term changes (versus the all or nothing approach).

Lastly, what's the most important thing to remember about good nutrition for an active lifestyle?

Mize: Food doesn't have to be (and shouldn't be) fuel alone. It's also meant to be savored and enjoyed. With such a focus on "clean eating" and dieting in our culture, the pleasurable part of eating often gets missed and we can become too rigid and restrictive, classifying foods as good or bad. It’s important to consider how what, when, and how you’re eating makes your body feel overall and during exercise (rather than justifying eating whatever you want because you worked out that day). 

While enjoying the taste of all types of food is important, our gold medal strategy is ultimately to eat to fuel the body, to be healthy, and to satisfy hunger. View food as fuel for the body and nourishment for the soul, and recognize that all foods can fit into a healthy, active lifestyle. 

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