When you imagine what a day in the life of an Olympic athlete is like, you probably feel lucky that you're not an Olympic athlete. They have to train for hours and hours on end, travel a lot, participate in photo shoots and interviews, and eat like nobody's business. That last one might sound good, but if you thought you were a champion foodie, you'll feel like a rookie after you see what Olympians eat in order to maintain an optimal, high-functioning athletic body.
In 2008, the world's jaw dropped when we learned that Michael Phelps was consuming 12,000 calories a day in preparation for the Olympics — half of us didn't even think that was physically possible. For dinner, it was reported that he consumed an entire pizza, one pound of pasta, and several energy drinks that packed 1,000 calories a punch. Granted, since then, he's reportedly changed things up. In preparation for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Phelps eats a lot less calories and has swapped out pizza for grilled chicken. There are actually some rumors circulating that the 12,000 calories a day story was entirely fabricated. I'm not sure if we'll ever learn the truth.
So what do these incredible athletes actually eat? Is their daily menu really as shocking as we imagine? Here are six things to know about an Olympic athlete's diet.
1. Yes, They Consume A Lot Of Calories
While you probably won't find every single one of the athletes tossing back tens of thousands of calories a day, they do have to make sure they're stocking up on enough grub to keep their body going. Because their level of activity is significantly higher than an average person, they need to eat a lot more in order to keep themselves upright. But it's not just about counting calories — the quality of their calories matters. They're trying to strike a proper balance of healthy fats, lean protein, complex carbs, and fresh fruits and veggies.
Athletes performing in "aesthetic" sports, such as gymnastics or synchronized swimming, take in about 2,000-2,500 calories day. Team sport players eat upwards of 4,500, while endurance athletes, such as swimmers or cyclists, can eat up to 8,000 calories a day. Registered dietician and sports nutritionist Catherine Naulleau is working with Canadian Olympic athletes for the Rio games, and she says the medium-intensity athletes in training need to eat 35 to 40 calories per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of their body weight each day.
2. They Have A Big Breakfast Every Single Day
You know already that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Well, the same goes for Olympians (they are human, after all). Hockey player Brianna Decker told Cosmopolitan that her breakfast consists of an egg scramble that contains vegetables and chicken or steak from the night before, along with fresh berries and banana. Because blood sugar is quite low when you first wake up in the morning, she needs a solid jolt of energy to get the body going, especially because she's heading into a rigorous training session.
Halfpipe snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler has a similar spread in the morning. She enjoys an omelette with broccoli, zucchini, avocado, and goat cheese, in addition to some rice almond bread so that she has healthy carbs to fuel for her body for the rest of the day. Swimmer Dara Torres, who is a 12-time Olympic medalist, chooses to eat Rice Krispies and frozen waffles first thing in the morning — with her 10-year-old daughter, of course. She tells Real Simple, “I make it a point to never miss breakfast, because with active lifestyles comes the constant need to be energized and ready to take on what the day brings you." Duly noted.
3. They Eat A Whole Lot Of Protein
Obviously, these incredible athletes need a hefty amount of protein in order to maintain, repair, and grow the muscle mass they need to outperform their competition. Protein also plays an important role in keeping a healthy immune system. That's why you can find a lot of salmon, grilled chicken, and eggs in gymnast Gabby Douglas' diet on any given day.
About 30 percent of a professional athlete's diet should consist of lean proteins. Basketball player Tamika Catchings loves to eat skinless chicken breast, soccer player Heather O'Reilly's protein of choice is Greek yogurt, and swimmer Eric Shanteau can't get enough peanut butter when he's in need of protein. No matter what sport they compete in, though, almost all athletes are known to consume protein shakes throughout the day, whether it's after a strength training session or even after dinner.
4. They Need Many, Many Snacks
Athletes need to make sure they've got enough food handy to chomp on at any hour of the day. Because they're constantly in and out of training sessions, if they don't have any snack with them, they may get home ravenous and subsequently eat the wrong stuff. Naulleau recommends they eat at least two or three snacks a day, and that's precisely what Olympic swimmer Haley Anderson does. Her three post-workout snacks give her the energy she needs, as well as the chance for her muscles to recover in between sessions.
You can probably find an Olympian munching on fresh, healthy snacks like almonds, bananas, and peanut butter. The incredible gymnast Aly Raisman told Yahoo! she absolutely loves chocolate milk after a workout, along with fruit. These carbs assist in her recovery and fuel her for her next endeavor.
5. They Drink Tons Of Water
Staying hydrated is just as important to an athlete's diet as food. Aly Raisman kicks off every single morning with a cup of warm water and some lemon. She told Cosmopolitan that, although she doesn't keep track of exactly how much water she drinks, she continuously hydrates throughout her entire workout. Countless other athletes say the same; they're tossing back as much water as possible, because the more hydrated they are, the more energy they have to train harder.
6. They Carb It Up Pretty Much All The Time
Swimmers, rowers, basketball and soccer players are the ones especially likely carb it up, due to the nature of their sport; they need a solid portion of whole wheat pancakes and pasta after their ridiculously intense workout. For example, famous swimmer Ryan Lochte eats 487 grams of carbohydrates a day. A typical dinner for him includes Chicken McNuggets, Double Cheeseburgers, a Big Mac, and fries. Not all Olympians carb up to that extent, but they definitely consume more carbohydrates every day than the normal person all the same.
However, Nanna Meyer, senior sport dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee and professor of sports nutrition, told NPR that there's a lot of variation in carb and calorie intake between the female and male athletes. It's highly unlikely that you'll find a woman Olympian eating all that fast food, because her body simply doesn't need that many carbs to function. But that doesn't mean she doesn't know how to play the carb game, either; Gabby Douglas stocks up on spiral pasta at the end of her long, physical day, followed by homemade gingerbread. It's all about balance.