Friday, 8 August 2008

Part 1: What do Olympians Eat?

It’s Olympic time again- I’m very excited!

Seeing all these amazingly fit athletes always makes me envious of their amazing bodies and makes me ask.... what do they eat do be able to compete at such a high levels and yet stay so lean and cut?!

However, although I did find some information on what athletes actually eat (stay tuned for Part-2 tomorrow!), I mostly found stories of disordered eating and elite athletes starving themselves to 'lean-out' in order to perform better!

According to Carl Lewis, American track star, 10 time Olympic medalist (9 of them gold!) and who was actually vegan when he was at his prime: "most athletes have the worst diets in the world and compete in spite of that".

Even Carl Lewis admits to having starved himself to stay lean...until researching the matter and learning how to eat to stay lean and healthy while still having the energy to perform.

This is a bit surprising- you would think that elite athletes would be doing everything they can to improve rather than hinder their performance.

Athletes are driven, extremely focused people- even obsessive-compulsive, so it shouldn't be such a shock that they are susceptible to suffering from eating disorders. In fact, disordered eating has been reported by 1/3 of American female college athletes.

Kimiko Hirai Soldati, a 2004 American Olympic diver has admitted to having struggled with bulimia for 1.5 years before seeking out help. She claims that it would be hard to find a female athlete in a "thin-build" sport (one that requires a lean body weight such as gymnastics, diving, cheerleading, figure skating, synchronized swimming, dancing, wrestling, lightweight rowing) who isn't preoccupied with their weight.

World famous gymnasts Kerri Strug and Nadia Comaneci have admitted to having struggled with eating disorders as has 1972 Olympic gold medal winning gymnast Cathy Rigby, who's 12 year struggle with eating disorders caused her to go into cardiac arrest twice. Chrsity Henrich, a former world-class gymnast suffered from anorexia and actually died in 1994 at the age of 22 from multi-organ failure.

However, it's not just the athletes of aesthetic sports that are at risk. Allie Outram, a British runner that competed internationally for 12 years, recently published her memoir "Running on Empty" where she describes her long struggle with anorexia and then bulimia. Her weight went down to 64 lbs and she was eventually hospitalized. She claims with confidence that at one World Cross Country Championship, 4 of the 6 girls from the Great Britain junior women's team had some form of an eating disorder. This corroborates the results of a 2007 study published in the journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise that found that one in five of Britain’s leading female distance runners had an eating disorder or had suffered from one in the the past, compared with just 1% of the general population.

The Frost twins, now 24 years of age, were considered among Britain's best prospects for track medals at the 2012 Olympics but last year revealed how they survived on just a few pieces of fruit a day because of anorexia.
Liz McColgan, British long distance athlete, has said that during her training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where she finished second, her weight fell to 98lbs, which probably cost her the gold medal. “I was so weak and undernourished that I didn't have the energy to sprint for the line,” she said.

The director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recounts an urgent request from the woman's cross-country running coach to speak to his athletes after learning that the girls were competing at the dinner table to see who could eat the least. Some of these girls were running over 100 km a week and only eating a carrot a day!

In 2001, German rower and 1988 Seoul Olympic eight time gold medalist, Bahne Rabe, died at age 37 as a result of an eating disorder. In 2003, Helen Lee, British cross-country champion died at the age of 18 from pneumonia and organ failure thought to be a direct result of her long-term battle with anorexia. 41 year old American swimmer and 2008 Olympic hopeful Dara Torres, pictured above with the amazing 6-pack, has admitted to having suffered from bulimia in the past.

Even Canadian elite ironman Peter Reid, 10 time ironman champion, admits to having "somewhat of an eating disorder". His normal weight is 172-175lbs but his race weight is 10 lbs below that. To get to that weight, he keeps his fridge and cupboards empty so he won't cheat. He shops for each meal and often goes to bed with a headache because he's so hungry. He claims this obsession with weight is very common among runners, cyclists and triathletes and that it is necessary to compete at a high level.

According to Dr. Angie Hulley, a sports psychologist and former international marathoner, a relatively low body weight can be helpful for elite athletes. Being overweight can limit performance in many sports because the body is forced to supply oxygen to fuel surplus fatty tissue. When you're leaner, the oxygen goes directly to the working muscles instead, enabling faster and more efficient movement. However, the danger is that many athletes get caught up in the mindset that they need to be even thinner to be a winner. Dr. Hulley states that there is a thin line between an optimum racing weight and one that is too low, and it is easy to overstep the mark.

But how do athletes keep training when their energy reserves are so depleted?

According to Hulley, “The body has a tremendous ability to cope with calorie deprivation for a while,” Dr Hulley says. “Eventually, though, it becomes too weak to sustain the activity, becomes prone to viruses and stress fractures and has to draw on all its reserves just to stay alive.”

What it Takes: A documentary about four world-class triathletes' quest for greatness. WIT Group, LLC. 2006


Jme said...

Very interesting! I did not know that cheerleading was an Olympic sport!

No but seriously, I think a lot of sports could take a page out of boxing and wrestling training. They train for months at a weight sometimes 10 to 15 lbs over their fight weight, cutting down only a week before. This is incorporated into the "peaking" portion of their training known to athletes of all sports.

Perhaps cutting their weight down so quickly is not healthy either, but reduces the vulnerability of being underweight down to just a week or two...

Sybil Hebert, RD said...

Thanks for your comment Jme.
I talk about periodization in the next blog- eating for the part of the training you're in- like you mention.
It would be interesting to know how the boxers lose the weight. Losing weight quickly isn't recommended, obviously, and would affect performance. So I'm not sure if training at a weight and then drastically cutting calories to lose weight 1-2 weeks before a competition is helpful. I'd almost think that getting to fighting weight earlier in their training season would be better for peak performance on competition day... no?

Anybody know any boxers?!

Jordan said...

Might be a bit off topic, but I hate women with six packs like the one shown in first picture. Something about that i just find repulsive.

Mark Martinez said...

I know most bodybuilders (or those new to it) are very cautious about nutrition and what they eat... yet never thought top Olympic athletes would suffer eating disorders too!
Also, interesting to know Carl Lewis, was actually vegan.
Mark Martinez
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