How the Elite Eat

By Amy Paturel, Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.

Four top athletes share their winning secrets to healthy eating.

Four Olympic athletes talk about nutrition, calories and exercise tips to live by.

Erik Vendt

At 27, swimmer Erik Vendt is the first American to break 15 minutes in the mile and a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 400 individual medley (2000, 2004). Recently coming out of retirement and with his sights now set on Beijing, Erik credits his speedy ­return, in part, to an organic diet.

Q: Describe your typical day of training.
A: A normal day consists of two swimming workouts—morning and afternoon, totaling 4 hours—and some sort of dry-land routine, alternating weights one day with running and Pilates on the other. In swimming, speed comes directly from the core so Pilates helps immensely.

Q: Favorite power breakfast?
A: Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day so picking a favorite is difficult, but after a hard morning workout I love cooking up a 4-egg omelet with Cheddar, peppers, onions and tomatoes.

Q: Favorite snack?
A: Definitely fruit! It’s hard to find fresh organic produce in the winter in Michigan, but Ann Arbor has a lot of co-ops.

Q: If you need to grab a quick bite to eat, what do you reach for first?
A: I’ll normally make a tuna sandwich to tide me over. It’s quick, easy and does the job.

Q: Is there anything you try to eat more of?
A: Ever since I was a kid I’ve been extremely low on iron so I try to pack my diet with as much of it as I can—red meat, oatmeal, cereal and beans. I normally add a vitamin C-rich food as well to help with iron ­absorption.

Q: Do you have an eating mantra you try to live by?
A: I think there’s a direct correlation between what you eat and how you feel. As soon as I began eating organic I felt better, more alive and healthier.

[header = Dara Torres]

Dara Torres

Dara Torres is more than your average Olympic athlete: she has set three World records, holds 13 National titles and owns nine Olympic medals, four of which are gold. Torres is the first U.S. swimmer to compete in four Olympic games and now, at 41 and a mother of a 2-year-old, she’s concentrating on a fifth—in Beijing.

Q: Describe your typical day of training.
A: I spend two hours in the pool, five days a week, and I weight train four days a week—two days of lower-body and core and the other two days upper-body and core. I also do resistive stretching three days a week.

Q: How many calories would you say you consume in a day?
A: I have no idea. I had an eating disorder in college so I don’t count calories.

Q: Favorite power breakfast?
A: Berry-flavored Living Fuel shakes with some milk and fruit are the best!

Q: What’s changed—in terms of physical activity and eating—with age?
A: The biggest change is recovery. I don’t recover as quickly as I used to, so now I try to eat more foods—lean protein in particular—that help me recover quicker.

Q: Favorite dinner or recipe?
A: A mixed green salad, turkey-spinach lasagna, garlic bread and green beans. My favorite cookbook is one I got in college—Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her?

Q: Best piece of nutrition advice you’ve ever gotten?
A: It’s OK to have bites of food that probably aren’t the best for you because that way you won’t deprive yourself and then want more of that food.

Q: Do you have an eating mantra you try to live by?
A: I eat what I want, when I want, but I exercise so I can do that.

[header = Mary Lou Retton]

Mary Lou Retton

In 1984, gymnast Mary Lou Retton brought home five Olympic medals from the Summer Olympic Games—including the All Around Gold Medal, a first for an American woman. Now 40, this mother of four girls (ages 6, 8, 11 and 13) “eats just to be healthy.”

Q: Describe your exercise routine.
A: I do 45 minutes of cardio—the elliptical is my favorite—then 30 minutes of weights.

Q: How many calories would you say you consume in a day?
A: You know, I don’t count calories. I hate those charts because, at 4'9", I should probably weigh 37 pounds. I don’t weigh myself either. I go by my clothes, how they fit and feel and what I look like in the mirror. I hate to get targeted on a number, especially with four girls. We don’t use the words ‘skinny’ or ‘thin’ in the house. We use the words ‘healthy,’ ‘muscular’ and ‘strong’ and we discuss healthy eating.

Q: Favorite power breakfast?
A: Egg whites. If I eat protein, it holds me a little longer—egg whites and a whole-wheat bagel or toast hold me until lunch. And of course Wheaties. The breakfast of champions!

Q: What’s your typical dinner?
A: I really try to prepare balanced meals. We’ll do a lean piece of protein, a vegetable and a starch. I use a lot of EatingWell recipes; Poached Salmon with Creamy Piccata Sauce and Grilled Chicken Tenders with Cilantro Pesto are two of our favorites. But pasta is my staple food. I’m Italian and, growing up, every Sunday after church the whole, big, large, loud family would get together for a big pasta dinner. Now, I try to do whole-wheat pasta. There are some that look white now so I trick my kids.

Q: Best piece of nutrition advice you’ve ever gotten?
A: From my coach, Bela Karolyi: “Eat small portions, and everything in moderation.”

[header = Apolo Anton Ohno]

Apolo Anton Ohno

Apolo Anton Ohno, 26, has been the reigning U.S. short track speedskating champion since 2001 and has won the U.S. men’s title nine times. In 2007, Ohno gained a whole new fan base when he and dance partner Julianne Hough won season four of the hit ABC series Dancing with the Stars. Ohno’s stamina shows no signs of waning: he plans to compete in his third Olympics at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Q: Describe your typical day of training.
A: In the morning, I train on the ice from 7:00 to 11:30. Then from 3:00 to 6:00 in the evening, I lift weights, run and bike sprints, and do technique training on dry land (performing exercises that use the same muscles required to skate).

Q: How many calories would you say you consume in a day?
A: It all depends on my activity level. I’ve never really counted calories because when I’m in tune with my nutrition, I can feel when I need to add more grams of fat, protein or carbohydrates.

Q: If you need a quick bite, what do you reach for first?
A: An apple and salmon sticks (like beef jerky but made with salmon).

Q: Favorite snacks?
A: My “bad” snacks are multicolored Swedish fish and peanut M&Ms. “Good” snacks are fruits and veggies.

Q: How has good nutrition made a difference for you?
A: I’m constantly working hard to improve my nutrition knowledge and it’s brought out abs and definition in my body that I’ve never seen before. I feel more energetic and healthy, and my mind is clear.

Q: Overall eating mantra?
A: “Not an almond more, not an almond less.” I’m hardcore about nutrition when it’s time to compete. My body needs to be clean—a well-oiled machine works best with top-grade fuel.