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tricitymed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
6mo San Diego, CA, United States Story
What We Can Learn From The Eating Habits of Elite Athletes

Being a top athlete takes hard work, dedication, and patience (although a little natural ability goes a long way, too). However, even the most committed fitness fanatics need the right foods to help them reach their goals — and unfortunately, this does not include donuts, burgers, and french fries.

So what do the world’s top athletes eat each day? Though eating like an elite athlete every day may not be the best move for our regular lives, we can still analyze these diets and learn from them, whether we are active or not. Check out the breakdown of three athlete’s meal plans below.

Jonny Wilkinson, Rugby Player


Muesli, Fruits, Low Fat Milk, Egg White Omelette, Toast


Pasta, Potatoes, Chicken, Salad


Oily Fish, Chicken, Vegetables


Water, Fruits

Daily Breakdown: 3020 calories; 122g fat, 230.8g protein, 65g sugar, 304g carbs

Tom Daley, Diver


Beans on Toast, Fruit


Jacket Potato, Grilled Chicken


Chicken, Steamed Vegetables, Pasta


Cereal Bar, Vegetable Soup, Toast and Chocolate Spread, Chocolate Milkshakes

Daily Breakdown: 3215.5 calories; 81.5g fat, 177.5g protein, 177.2g sugar, 435.4g carbs

Louis Smith, Gymnast


Fruits, Scrambled Eggs on Toast


Pasta with Ham, Tomatoes and Cucumber, Fruits


Chicken with Steamed Vegetables and Salad

Snacks Hydration Drinks

Daily Breakdown: 3778 calories; 43.6g fat, 146.5g protein, 214.2g sugar, 717.3g carbs

What do these three athletes have in common, and what are some big takeaways from their eating habits that we should incorporate into our daily lives?

1. Always Eat Breakfast

In an effort to cut calories and, presumably, burn more fat, many people choose to do their morning workout on an empty stomach, but this strategy does more harm than good. Simply put, our muscles require fuel to function. While admittedly, our bodies may burn through more fat without carbohydrates available to use, they are also forced to consume muscle tissue, too. More importantly, without food we have less energy, so while we may feel as though we’re working at 100%, we’re not pushing our muscles as hard as we could be. What we gain in fat loss, which is negligible, we lose in muscle gain, which is where real fitness progress (and weight loss) happens.

Eating a small, well-rounded breakfast about 45 minutes before your workout will give you the energy you need to perform at your best. Carbohydrates, like fruit, oats, or whole grain toast, are ideal here, because your body will burn through them quickly to fuel your workout.  

In fact, a comparison of the meal plans of elite athletes from various disciplines shows that, on average, they got 55% of their calories from carbohydrates, 27% from fat, and 20% from protein. What does this look like in practice? It could be as simple as an apple and a handful of nuts for those who struggle to eat in the morning, or as involved as a vegetable-filled omelette with whole grain toast and fruit.

Since protein is required to build muscle, it may seem like more protein before a workout will yield more rewards, but both protein and fat take longer to digest than carbs, which means if you eat them too soon before working out, important energy will be diverted from your workout to your gut, which is working to digest that food, instead of fueling your workout.

2. Use Lunch to Refuel

This is the time to load up on protein and refuel on carbohydrates. Choose lean proteins, like chicken, fish, eggs, or tofu, and complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, quinoa, or oats. For vegetarians, the combination of rice and beans is ideal, as together they form a complete protein and also offer a hefty dose of healthy carbs. And, of course, you’ll want plenty of vegetables to keep your immune system strong and colon healthy.

A typical lunch for elite golfer Jordan Speithe, for example, consists of six ounces of baked fish, a generous portion of asparagus, and one cup of brown rice with ¾ cup cooked lentils.

3. Plan Ahead

More than mere willpower, which is an easily exhaustible resource, eating well requires planning and organization. When we make nutritious foods available to us and prepare them in advance, we eliminate the need to make the right choice again and again. Nothing fuels poor eating decisions more than feeling hungry and rushed, so make sure you have a meal game plan before you get to that point.

Keep simple snacks like fruit, nuts, or homemade granola with you while on the go so you aren’t forced to buy something sugary in desperation, and set aside a couple hours a week for meal prep. Marinate meat, fish, or tofu, steam or roast some vegetables, and cook a big pot of rice or beans at the beginning of the week so you can pull meals together with just a flavorful dressing or sauce and a few minutes of your time. Make salad dressings ahead of time, too, to avoid the sugary and chemical-laden store-bought options. This allows you to enjoy a large portion of vegetables even when you don’t have the time to cook them.

What About the Rest of Us?

With its emphasis on increased carbohydrates, and calories in general, an athlete’s diet clearly won’t work for everyone. Carbohydrates are the essential fuel our muscles use to run, jump, and lift; if we aren’t doing those things, the unused carbohydrates that remain are stored as fat.

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these athletes, however. Aside from the above takeaways, the two things that stand out even among a wide range of athlete’s diets are the emphasis on whole foods and the absence of refined sugars — both strategies that even the most sedentary among us could benefit from.

These two nutritional baselines also work hand-in-hand. Eating whole foods, which consist of things like lean protein, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and plenty of fresh produce, automatically means avoiding refined sugars, which offer intense bursts of energy that quickly turn to dramatic energy crashes, leaving us more tired than before. Whole foods keep us fuller for longer, contain a myriad of vitamins and minerals, and provide sustained energy that will last throughout the day.

Active or Not, Treat Your Body Right

We may not all train like the elite athletes of this world, but we should treat our bodies just as well in our own way. Eat healthfully, live mindfully, and move daily, in whatever way makes you happy.

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Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

Cortney Berling is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Tri-City Medical Center, a full-service, acute-care hospital located in Oceanside, California. She received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics at The University of Cincinnati and completed her dietetic internship at The Cleveland Clinic. [...]

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