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With every Olympic Games come tales of athletes’ favorite junk foods: the ice cream, Chinese food, and burgers they reportedly indulge in to relieve some of the stress of training. The implication is that with all the exercise these athletes do, they can eat whatever they want.

While it may be true that Olympians sometimes cut loose, their diets tend to be remarkably junk food-free — and highly optimized for performance.

Athletes are looking for any edge. Increasingly, that means practicing extreme caution about what foods they use as fuel. “These events are won by less than 1 percent — the margin of victory is really quite tiny,” Mayo Clinic exercise researcher Michael Joyner said.

To learn more about the sophisticated — and sometimes mysterious — eating practices of Olympians, we talked to the dietitians and nutritionists who work with them. We learned that the art of feeding athletes has become extraordinarily fine-tuned, calibrated daily to their workouts and competitions. We also learned that, far from ice cream and burgers, athletes these days eat avoid processed food.

Athletes need to calibrate their calories to meet the demands of their sport

Feeding elite athletes these days is a full-time job. For years ahead of the Winter Games, four sports dietitians have been working with Team USA, drawing up nutrition plans, educating them about food, cooking with them, even helping them grow their own food.

The work continues in South Korea: Team USA shipped to South Korea 85 pallets’ worth of food and equipment — weighing hundreds of pounds — so athletes had exactly what they needed for fuel at all times.

A big challenge for sports nutritionists who work with athletes is making sure they have enough energy to compete in their particular event. Different sports have vastly different energy needs — and most athletes don’t eat anywhere near as much you might think.

To calibrate the correct number of calories, sports nutritionists need to calculate how hard the athletes are training, how much energy they are likely to burn, and how heavy or light they need to be for competition.

Ski jumpers, for example, are at the very low end of the spectrum, eating as little as 1,300 calories per day.

“They come from a large height, come down, and fly as far as they can, so they have to weigh extremely light. The lighter you are, you fly farther,” said Susie Parker Simmons, one of two senior sports nutritionists with the United States Olympic Committee.

These men and women typically weigh up to 10 or more pounds less in the days before competition compared to their typical bodyweight, so that means restricting their calories to eat even less than their bodies might burn. Ditto for figure skaters, who need to ensure they’re light and agile enough to jump and glide across the ice. Check out this article of Olympic athletes that start there day right.  


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