The Winter Olympics are here, and as we watch super humans (aka professional athletes) perform impressive physical feats, you may wonder what exactly they eat to be able to do these incredible things. To get answers, we chatted with two experts who have spent years working with professional athletes to figure out the best foods to fuel their grueling workouts and perform at their peak on game day.
So, what do professional athletes eat for breakfast?
The short answer: It depends. Brittany Dunn, a performance dietitian and chef for the Philadelphia Eagles, has found that what professional athletes eat varies widely among athletes and the sports they play.
“I have worked with an athlete who prefers two boiled eggs with peanut butter toast and a coffee, an athlete who prefers an acai bowl and sauteed veggies, and an athlete who orders two breakfast sandwiches and tater tots,” she told HuffPost.
As far as macronutrients and micronutrients go, Dunn notes that all of these breakfasts deliver nutritional benefits to each athlete. “The contrasting characteristics of athlete breakfasts are heavily influenced by personal preferences and diets, the amount of time between eating and the following training session, body composition and sport,” she said.
Come game day, race day or competition day, athletes don’t take any chances with their breakfast. Consistency is the name of the game, and the last thing a professional athlete needs is an upset stomach. “What I’ve found is that many athletes have an established game day meal plan,” Dunn said. In her experience, most athletes eat the same breakfast before every competition. “Game day is not the day to try new foods,” she said. Additionally, having a consistent breakfast routine can help professional athletes feel more mentally prepared for the day ahead.
As for general caloric needs, professional athletes need to consume more than the average person given the amount of energy they’re using in their respective sports, and to help with recovery. Dunn said that while she hasn’t directly worked with an athlete with a diet quite as astonishing as Michael Phelps’ (who is rumored to have consumed 12,000 calories a day when training), she has worked with an athlete who required a 1,000-calorie recovery smoothie post-training, plus three to four additional meals throughout the day. “The goal here was for the athlete to maintain body composition and provide fuel to support training and energy needs,” she said.
How do the diets of professional athletes compare to that of an everyday person?
Given the higher caloric needs of professional athletes, it’s not uncommon for them to consume five, six or even eight meals a day, with a mix of full meals, shakes and snacks. Since they need to consume so many calories (particularly carbs), professional athletes get a bit of a pass as far as simple sugars go, as they’re easier to digest.
“We really need to put a lot of fuel into athletes, so we might give them things like juice or even candy to make them feel more hungry,” Dr. Marc Bubbs, a performance nutritionist with a portfolio of professional and Olympic athletes and the author of “Peak 40,” told HuffPost. “For the general population, we don’t want them eating these foods that make them hungry more often or that have a lot of energy density to them.”
Bubbs explained that the more intense your exercise, the greater your reliance on carbohydrates, so professional athletes simply need more carbohydrates in their system. “It’s a bit like a fire: If you have a really hot fire, you can put all sorts of logs on there and the fire is still going to burn really well and stay hot, kind of like the metabolism and the exercise and activity of athletes,” he said. But put too many logs on the fire and the fire goes out, similar to when an average person consumes more calories than they need, which eventually leads to weight gain, high blood sugar and inflammation. The male athletes he’s worked with need about 4,000 calories a day while the general recommendation for the average person is around 2,000 calories per day.
“The total calories depend on the energy demands of the sport,” Bubbs said. “A cyclist or swimmer may need 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day (due to the high volume of training), while team sport athletes like basketball and soccer will land between 3,500 and 5,000 calories (which will vary depending on the demands of the day).” He added that since women are, in general, smaller and lighter, they would most likely (but not always) require fewer calories.
While the average person might make a smoothie for breakfast with water, protein powder and berries, a professional athlete might substitute fruit juice for the water and add mangoes, pineapples and bananas to up the carb content. Another example Bubbs gave was a bowl of plain yogurt with berries and nuts, which makes for a solid breakfast for the average person (not too many carbs or fats, and plenty of protein). To up the carb content, a professional athlete might add sliced banana, muesli and maple syrup. The key concept here, Bubbs explained, is carbohydrate periodization: fueling for the demands of an athlete each day, whether that’s competition, practice or even rest.
In crafting meal plans for her clients, Dunn’s primary goal is to ensure that she’s providing proper calories and appropriate nutrients specific to the athlete’s needs and sport. In doing this, she takes into consideration which foods fit into any dietary restrictions and preferences the athletes have. It’s important that the athletes actually like what they’re eating so that they finish their meals and get the fuel they need to perform.
The breakfasts of professional athletes are, by necessity, more consistent than those of an average person as far as consumption, timing and nutritional content go. Skipping breakfast is a fairly inconsequential choice for the average person headed to their desk job, but for an athlete headed to an intense workout that lasts several hours, skipping breakfast can lead to disastrous results. “One of the biggest differences is that my work with professional athletes can be a lot more meticulous, as I am typically more involved with them on a daily basis, with access to the frequent labs and body composition analysis, to make necessary adjustments along the way,” Dunn said.
Expert-approved breakfast recommendations for active people
For the active person who isn’t a professional athlete, there are some general guidelines to follow to help fuel your workouts and help achieve your health and fitness goals. Dunn recommends ensuring that your breakfast includes healthy fats, protein and complex, fiber-filled carbohydrates. “These nutrients not only support muscle, combat inflammation and aid in vitamins and mineral absorption, but they also help maintain a feeling of satiety until the next mealtime.”
Some specific breakfast options she recommends are yogurt with granola and berries, whole-grain cereal with fruit toppings and milk or a protein-packed milk substitute, oatmeal with nut butter and fruit, cottage cheese and whole-grain toast, a veggie omelet with toast, and a waffle with nut butter and milk.
Bubbs recommends starting with protein when building your meal, with at least 20 grams of protein for active individuals. “Breakfast is the meal of the day that people typically get the least amount of protein, so that should be the main focus,” he said. He said 30 to 40 grams of protein per meal for men and 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal for women are ideal amounts to hit. This number will vary for individuals based on their activity level and body weight. For reference, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for active individuals.
Next up is carbohydrates, which Bubbs recommends decreasing for individuals looking to lose weight or improve their blood sugar. “Have more berries rather than bananas, and have a slice of bread rather than three or four,” he said. Last is fats. Again, if you’re trying to lose weight, this is an area you can be conservative with: a drizzle of olive oil or a quarter or half of an avocado.
If you’re the type of person to get a morning workout in, Bubbs’ recommendation differs depending on the type of workout you’re doing. For an aerobic workout, he recommends fasting or having a low-carb breakfast, but for an intense training session he recommends eating a full breakfast beforehand with sufficient carbohydrates. “If you’re training hard, make sure you have enough fuel on board,” he said.