The Skinny on Athletic Diets


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Diets are always a hot topic and often controversial. That’s probably even more so when it comes to athletes and what they eat. We have a look here at some diet and health related statistics, both general and for athletes, with an emphasis on those that competed in the 2012 London Olympics.

Athletic Diets: The Numbers

These are some general facts and figures about athletes and diets.

  • The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) recommends 2-2400 calories daily for active adult women. For active adult men, that recommendation is 2400-3000 calories. This is just to maintain bodyweight.
  • 2-8,000 calories is the range of what most athletes are likely to eat daily while in training, usually spread out over 5 to 7 meals per day. The actual amount depends on the sport and whether or not an athlete is trying to bulk up, drop weight, or maintain their physique.
  • 2/3 of daily calorie burn for the average person comes from resting metabolic rate — i.e., while essentially doing nothing.
  • An average person can burn as much as 200-400 calories daily just from the digestive process. The larger the person and more active, the more calories they’ll burn daily in regular activity.
  • A 190-lb athlete such as American swimmer Michael Phelps would burn about 2,000 calories per day just from his resting metabolic rate. I.e., lying around doing nothing. Athletes tend have a higher resting metabolic rate than the average non-athletic person.
  • 6’1″ is the average height of world class athletes. 217 pounds is their average weight.
  • As per author Malcolm Gladwell, at least 10,000 hours spent at any endeavor tends to make you an expert on that subject. It’s been observed that 10K hours of quality training is about what an athlete needs to commit to for at least 8 years, to achieve elite performance, such as for the 2012 Olympics — as per a study conducted of participating athletes. That works out to approximately 24 hours/week or 4 hours per day, 6 days a week. Some athletes prefer a 6-hour total daily workout, thus burning more calories daily.
  • In a Olympic/ Paralympics 2012 study, a group of 100 elite British athletes had consumed about 1.1M calories per year on average — roughly 3,013 calories daily during their average 11 year training regimen.
  • 76.5% of daily caloric intake came from carbs for Kenyan runners of the Kalenjin tribe — who won about 40% of major running competitions worldwide (middle- and long-distance) from 1987-1997. In a study of this group, it was noted that they ate 5 times a day — not uncommon for actively training athletes. 86% of the Kenyan runners’ daily nutrients were vegetable-based. Their protein intake was about 75 grams/day.
  • In comparison, distance runners from the U.S. ate 49% of daily calories in carbs, and similar runners from the Netherlands and South Africa ate 50% carbs. Australian runners ate 52% carbs.

The 2012 Olympics

Here are some stats for the athletes competing in the 2012 London Olympics.

  • Coca-Cola has been a sponsor of the Olympics since 1928.
  • McDonald’s has been a sponsor since 1976.
  • 10,384 athletes competed.
  • 206 countries competed. Certain sports did not report height and/or weight, and as a result some countries are not included average height or median weight calculations. Average weights and median heights include both male and female athletes.
  • The two largest teams were the USA with 518 athletes and Great Britain with 513 athletes.
  • Of competing athletes whose weight was recorded, the country with the heaviest average athlete was Nauru with 234.30 pounds (106.50 Kg) — skewed due a country sample size of 2 athletes — one in Judo at 160.6 pounds (73 Kg) and the other in weightlifting weighing nearly double that at 308.0 pounds (140 Kg).
  • The country with the lowest average weight of athletes was Haiti at 114.40 pounds (52.00 Kg) — also skewed due to a small sample size.
  • The U.S. ranked 40th heaviest team at an average weight of 167.09 pounds (75.95 Kg).
  • The overall average of all countries (male and female athletes) was 160.27 pounds (72.85 Kg). Five countries did not have averages recorded because the sports their athletes were competing in did not supply data for the study.
  • 6 feet, 3.14 inches was the tallest median height for Icelandic athletes.
  • Gambia’s athletes had the shortest median height of 5 feet, 1.02 inches.
  • Americans placed 31st with a median height of 5 feet, 10.49 inches.
  • The average of all countries (for athletes whose heights were recorded) was 5 feet, 9.65 inches (176.9 cm).
  • Of the Olympic sports that provided weights of their competing athletes, the heaviest are basketball players (all countries) at an average of 191.37 pounds (87.0 Kg) — well over the average of all sports at 160.27 pounds (72.8 Kg).
  • The sport with the lightest athletes is Cycling, with an average of 125.40 pounds (57.0 Kg).

General Athletic Dietary Suggestions

The USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency) has an “optimal dietary intake guide” for athletes, which includes the following suggestions and facts:

  • At least 50% of total daily calories consumed from carbohydrates. Ideally 60-70%, depending on the training routine and needs of the athlete. This equates to 2.5-6.0 grams for every pound of body weight. So if the average weight of all 2012 Olympic athletes was 160.27 pounds, carb intake would be 0.88-2.12 pounds of carbs per day. (The longer the daily training sessions, the more carbs are recommended by the USADA.)
  • Add 500-1,000 calories/daily “to current dietary intake.” They also recommend foods low in fat and high in both carbs and proteins: grilled chicken sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, cheese, crackers.
  • The average 150 lb athlete stores 1500-2000 calories in carbs and up to 80,000 calories in fat. Increase carb intake during training helps burn fat calories more efficiently.
  • In a study, elite rowers consuming 20% of calories from fat had more glycogen, power and speed than rowers consuming 40% of calories from fat.

Gluten-Free and Paleo/ Paleo-Modified Diet Athletes

The Paleo diet is an extremely controversial topic. It has been recommended by some health practitioners for people with severe allergies, stomach and intestinal ailments (celiac, IBS, Crohn’s, colitis), thyroid problems, as well as a variety of other ailments. (In particular, see Dr. William Davis’ book Wheat Belly, amongst others. Note that experts are in disagreement about the benefits of a Paleo diet, but Dr. Davis, who was ill himself, has witnessed the recovery of many of his patients after they adopted a Paleo diet. Some experts call Paleo dieting a fad.)

In it’s most basic form, the Paleo diet restricts any refined or processed foods, dairy, legumes, some nuts, wheat/ gluten, cereal grains and certain other items. The recommendation is meat, poultry, eggs, fish, vegetables, fungi, roots and fruit. There’s a special emphasis on “grass-fed” and “organic” when it comes to non-veg proteins, and the general rule of thumb is that if it’s processed, it’s not Paleo.

A lot of foods with complex carbs (pasta, potatoes, cereals and grains) which would normally be consumed by athletes are restricted on the Paleo diet. Simple carbs are found in other restricted items such as dairy. However, a “Paleo-plus” or “Paleo-modified” diet, which is less strict, allows you to add back foods on a trial basis, one at a time, to determine if there is any short-term allergic reaction. If not, a particular item can be added to a Paleo-modified diet.

Distance runner Nathan Brannen and tennis player Ana Ivanovic, who both competed at the 2012 Olympics, are two athletes on a gluten-free diet.

23 Vegetarian and Vegan Athletes

A vegetarian diet cuts out meats but for some who label themselves vegetarian, it might include eggs, dairy, butter, cheese. A vegan diet cuts out any animal products, with extremely strict vegans possibly cutting out foods that are meant to be meat substitutes — such as TVP (textured vegetable protein, sometimes used in “mock” deli meat slices). While vegetarianism and veganism seems to be a recent trend that Olympic and other athletes have adopted, there have been athletes who’ve gone this dietary route as far back as at least the 1924 Olympics.

Here are some numbers on vegetarianism and veganism:

  • It’s estimated that there are about 7.3M American vegetarians, with as many as 22.8M Americans who put an emphasis on a vegetarian diet but eat some animal proteins.
  • 59% of American vegetarians are women, 41% are men.
  • There are an estimated 1M American vegans.
  • The top vegetarian U.S. cities (measured by number of vegetarian restaurants) are Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta.

Here is an incomplete list of athletes (many of them Olympians) who follow vegetarian or vegan diets.

  1. Track athlete Paaovo Numi (9 gold medals across the 1924 and 1928 games).
  2. Swimmer Murray Rose (4 gold medals across the 1956 and 1960 games) was supposedly a vegan from childhood.
  3. Track athlete Edwin Moses (2 gold medals, 1976 and 1984 Olympics) is a vegetarian.
  4. Track athlete Debbie Lawrence (3-time Olympian) is a vegetarian .
  5. Tennis player Venus Williams, who was diagnosed with the incurable autoimmune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome, follows a raw vegan diet. Her sister and fellow tennis player Serena Williams complements her diet with raw vegan food but is not a vegan.
  6. Tennis player Martina Navratilova is a vegetarian.
  7. Tennis player Billie Jean King is a vegetarian.
  8. Track athlete Carl Lewis (9 gold, 1 silver in multiple Olympic games from 1984 to 1996), became vegetarian later in his career.
  9. Judo and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey decided to become a vegan after the 2008 Olympics, where she won a bronze medal in Judo — the first American woman to do so.
  10. Skier Bode Miller (1 gold, 4 silver, 1 bronze in 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics) has been a vegetarian since birth.
  11. Cyclist Lizzie Armistead (silver, 2012 Olympics) has been a vegetarian since age ten.
  12. Track athlete Dylan Wykes (2012 Olympics) is a vegetarian for ethical reasons.
  13. Skier Seba Johnson (1988 and 1992 Olympics), now an actress, is a vegan since birth.
  14. Soccer player Kara Lang (2008 Beijing Olympics) is a vegan since her teen years.
  15. Wheelchair basketball player Sarah Stewart (2004, 2008 Paralympics) is a vegan since her late teens.
  16. Wrestler Chris Campbell — one of the oldest to win an Olympic medal at 37 (bronze, 1992 Olympics) — is a vegan.
  17. Snowboarder Hannah Teter (1 gold, 1 silver – 2006, 2010 Olympics) is a vegetarian.
  18. Figure skater Charlene Wong (1988 Olympics) has followed a vegetarian diet but says she’s not as strict about it as in the past.
  19. Football player Arian Foster (Houston Texans) announced he went vegan before the 2012-3 season’s training camp.
  20. Basketball player Robert Parish is vegetarian.
  21. Baseball player Hank Aaron is a vegetarian.
  22. Baseball player Cecil Fielder is a vegeterian.
  23. Boxer ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson appeared on Oprah to talk about how going vegan since 2010 helped him drop 100 pounds.

Numerous professional bodybuilders and other pro athletes in basketball, baseball and football are committed vegetarians or vegans. Yet other athletes try these diets temporarily:

  • Football player Joe Namath has been a vegetarian.
  • Baseball player Prince Felder tried a vegetarian for a few months. His father, Cecil Fielder (mentioned above) is a strict vegetarian.
  • Football player Tony Gonzalez also tried on being vegetarian and vegan but apparently missed chicken and fish too much.
  • The Chinese women’s volleyball team went vegetarian during the 2012 World Grand Prix finals because of lack of access to their special supply of drug-free animal protein. In fact, the entire Chinese olympics team are not allowed to eat food from street vendors or public restaurants because of the possibility of ingesting performance-enhancing drugs, particularly clenbuterol. Several Chinese teams have special supplies of drug-free meats.
  • The entire Chinese Olympics team went vegetarian before the 2012 Olympics.

A more extreme form of veganism is fruitarianism. Comedian Dick Gregory, once a high school track athlete, ran 3,000 miles across the USA on a fruitarian and raw food diet. He became a vegetarian in 1960. Gregory and his wife Lillian raised 10 children on the same type of diet

Body Mass Index

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a relative indicator of overall health. Some experts discount the value of the BMI measure for athletes because they tend to have more muscle mass than the average person. With athletes, it’s better used as a looser guideline. For the average person, however, BMI can be an indicator of potential for diabetes, cancer and other health issues.

The AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) has the following BMI ranges for their BMI calculator:

  • Underweight — less than 18.4
  • Normal — 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight — 25.0 to 29.9
  • Obese — 30.0 and above

For athletes, a measure of LBM (Lean Body Mass) — which factors in % body fat — may be more useful than BMI. Still, we calculated the average BMI of 2012 Olympic athletes. BMI is calculated in metric as mass (kg) over height (m) squared in metric units, or mass (lb) over height (in) squared times 703 in imperial units.

  • The average of all 2012 Olympics athletes (male and female, for whom both weight and height measurements were recorded) is 23.28, which is towards the high end of the “Normal” range.
  • Guam’s Ricardo Blas Jr (Judo) had the top BMI score of 63.70. Blas Jr was recorded as 479.6 pounds (218 Kg) and 6 feet, 0.8 inches (185 cm). After his loss at the 2008 Olympics, he told a reporter that eats a lot of protein (beef and chicken).
  • At the other end of the BMI range was Poland’s Marcin Mozdzonek (Men’s Volleyball), at a BMI of 11.46, which would normally be considered severely underweight. Mozdzonek was recorded as 112.2 pounds (51 Kg) and 6 feet, 11.07 inches (211 cm).

10 Extreme or Unusual Athletic Eating Habits

It’s not just the average person who has quirky eating habits. Athletes have been known to eat unusual foods, have food rituals, or eat things that are probably bad for the rest of us.

  1. 8,000 calories daily is about what swimmer Mark Phelps consumed while training for the 2008 Olympics. Phelps is said to have eaten “3 fried egg sandwiches, 3 slices of French toast, a bowl of grits, a 5-egg omelet, 3 chocolate chip pancakes” — just for breakfast. For other meals, he’s known to eat pasta and pizzas.
  2. Boxer Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather Jr, who was in the 1996 Altanta Olympics, has said he enjoys burgers and has been known to visit a number of different fast food chains.
  3. So-called fastest man alive Usain Bolt claimed he ate 1,000 chicken McNuggets(tm) for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, which is estimated at 47,000 calories — or about 4,700 calories for each of the 10 days of competition. He’s also a fan of chicken wings, but apparently tries to avoid fast food for 3-month stretches. Apparently his nugget preference during the Beijing Olympics was due to not being comfortable with Chinese food. His father once said that Bolt’s speed is due to his consumption of the trelawny yam. On the flipside, swimmer Ryan Lochte apparently stopped eating fast foods to prepare for the 2012 Olympics.
  4. Bolt’s competitor Yohan Blake has said he eats 16 ripe bananas daily.
  5. Gymnast Jonathon Horton takes honey during workouts if his blood sugar levels drop.
  6. UFC fighter Lyoto Machida drinks his own urine each morning — a practice that even some countries’ statesmen have been known to perform, supposedly to flush body toxins.
  7. A number of professional American athletes (Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Eugene Terry, Boston Red Sox’ Wade Boggs, amongst others) always consume chicken before a game.
  8. Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher eats two chocolate chip cookies before each game.
  9. The Chinese marathon team raises their own chickens, and the judo team raises their own pigs. Both teams do so to avoid ingesting performance enhanching drugs.
  10. Swimmer Janet Evans starts her day with a fiber supplement Metamucil.



Information for this article was collected from the following pages and web sites: