How to eat like an Olympian
What unites all Olympic athletes isn't just their hardcore training schedule - they all also know that everything they put into their body needs to count (except those huge shot putters, they look like they eat anything).
Without the right fuel, they wouldn't be able to train, never mind compete at the London Games. With our busy lives we can't realistically be expected to work out as hard or as often as they do, but we can learn from the way they eat.
If you want a gold-medal-winning body, you need a gold-standard diet. Start by following these simple rules.
Eat lots of protein
To get the lean muscle that adorns so many top athletes, you need to make sure your diet is full of protein. Nutrition consultant Claire Harper explains: "Protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates, so it helps to balance energy levels, avoiding sharp spikes in blood sugar. We break protein down into amino acids, which serve as the building blocks for our own muscle. Animal products such as meat and eggs contain all the essential amino acids, whereas vegetable proteins like beans and nuts are incomplete so it's a good idea to combine the two."
Drink lots of water
Water keeps our energy levels topped up, prevents injury and wards off illness, and no self-respecting athlete would ever allow themselves to become dehydrated. "When training, you use much more energy," says Harper. "Therefore you are metabolising more fuel, whether this is from the sugars circulating in your bloodstream, the fuel stored in your muscle tissue, liver or from your fat stores - all metabolic processes require water. Additionally, if you become dehydrated your blood becomes viscous and slower, so the muscles won't receive the energy and oxygen they need to perform at their best."
Eat good fats
Don't let the 5% body fat ration full you - Olympians won't stay completely clear of sources of dietary fat. Harper explains: "Fat is not the evil substance we have been led to believe. It is essential for every single cell in our bodies. We should all be eating plenty of oily fish like mackerel and salmon, along with some good quality vegetable fats including nuts, seeds and avocados. The saturated fat in animal products - meat and dairy - is ok in moderation. But the latest buzz surrounds coconut oil, which is high in medium chain triglycerides - a type of fat that can be easily digested and used for fuel. It provides far more sustained energy than a simple carbohydrate and is more filling. Many personal trainers I work with use a spoonful in their smoothies."
Eat before you train
It's tempting to get the daily training session out of the way as soon as you fall out of bed, but really you should eat something first, then wait to make the most of the subsequent energy boost. But what is the perfect pre-training snack? First of all, make sure you are hydrated, but don't gulp right before you start moving unless you want to wet yourself. Harper continues: "The most important factor in choosing a pre-training snack is that it is very easily and quickly digested, so carbohydrates are the best choice. Many athletes like porridge for this reason, also fresh or dried fruits, some oatcakes, or a smoothie."
Eat after you train
"Post-exercise is the time to add in the protein for muscle recovery," says Harper. If you want to tone up after you've worked up a sweat, don't wait too long before you eat something. Harper adds: "A protein shake, yoghurt with fruit, nuts and dried fruit are all good straight after training. Your next meal should include some further protein such as eggs, tuna, meat and fish."
Eat foods that keep you healthy
Injury is an athlete's worst nightmare, especially with an Olympic Games on the horizon. For mere mortals like us, doing ourselves a mischief means not being able to train, which means piling back on the pounds we've worked so hard to lose. But you can eat to prevent injury, says Harper. "Ensure you replete the nutrients needed for repair, like protein, and also the mineral magnesium for muscle relaxation and to stop cramps. Essential fatty acids, like omega-3, meanwhile, are anti-inflammatory, so can help to counteract swelling caused by wear and tear."
Eat to prevent illness
For the dangers of not being healthy enough to train, see above. Illness will put the kibosh on your fitness regime as quickly as injury, so make sure you strengthen your immune system by stocking up on the right foods. Harper says: "Eat a diet rich in antioxidants. The best way to do this is to eat a rainbow of different, brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as red, orange and yellow peppers, carrots, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, berries and oranges. Include seeds like pumpkin and sunflower in the diet as these are rich in selenium and zinc, minerals which support the immune system, which is vital because more oxidative stress is put on the body when you train hard."
Carbs are an athlete's friend, honest! Well, not all of them, but the trick is to know which ones to eat, and which to avoid. Harper says: "It's important to differentiate between carbohydrates. Refined, processed carbs like white pasta, white rice and anything containing white flour are an enemy for us all because they deliver very few nutrients but an intense burst of calories that are too much to handle in one go. Carbohydrates that are our friends are all fruits and vegetables, brown rice and other whole grains that do not deliver their calories so quickly. The average person in the UK is sedentary and eats far too many grains (starchy carbs) and sugars, with a low vegetable and protein intake. Athletes, however, are very active, training for several hours a day, so starchy carbs are a useful source of energy for them."
Even the most successful Olympians will indulge now and again, and so should you, but only if you are exercising a lot and not sitting still all day. Harper concludes: "Athletes are among the few people who do enough exercise to be able to eat a few treats while suffering negative effects. Athletes' bodies are well tuned, so when they do eat something naughty, they can metabolise it efficiently. A piece of white toast and jam will play havoc with a normal person's blood sugar levels, but an athlete is likely to have a better ability to deal with the excess sugars."