Gorge or Diet: What Olympians Really Eat to Compete

Standing tall on the podium -- lean, toned and bulging with pride -- Olympic medalists look like the pinnacle of self-discipline.

But Michael Phelps' recent tabulation of his daily meals conjured up an image of reckless abandon: 2 pounds of pasta, an entire pizza, energy drinks, two cups of coffee, a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese and chocolate chip pancakes. The account left many asking, what do Olympians really eat?

If you're on the Chinese rowing team, you might be eating bull penis soup for breakfast, as a London Time's reporter described in February.

Michael Phelps

Elizabeth Applegate, Olympian nutrition consultant and director of sports nutrition at the University of California at Davis, said Phelps' diet is far from thoughtless gorging. Athletes in Beijing are eating some of the most artfully orchestrated meals in the world -- designed for their bodies, their sport and their cultural cuisine preferences.

Strategic Chocolate Chip Pancakes

American diver Chris Colwill, who placed fourth with his teammate Jevon Tarantino in the men's synchronized 3-meter springboard Wednesday, is a big fan of Chinese food.

"Lately, I've been really into dim sum," he told ABCNews.com, referring to the southern Chinese food.

Colwill is competing for the third time in Beijing in his first Olympics. He consumes at least 3,000 calories a day and works with a nutritionist at his home training center at the University of Georgia.

The average person should consume an average of 2,000 calories a day, or fewer, most nutritionists say. An average Olympian consumes two to three times more than that amount per day.

On an intense training day, Phelps takes in 12,000 calories. When Colwill heard the number, he was shocked. "I can't image what 12,000 calories [looks like]. That's about eight meals a day. Big meals."

Applegate, who has consulted with Olympic athletes and their trainers for more than 20 years, said that somewhere within that smorgasbord of food that Phelps consumes, there's enough protein, vitamins and nutrients to sustain him. Beyond that, Phelps is just searching for pure calories, she said.

"He needs to eat calorie-rich food, and that's what chocolate chip pancakes are," Applegate said. "I'm not surprised. Athletes eat like that all the time."

Some athletes, that is. Depending on the athletes' size, sport or event, the meal planning can change drastically. Applegate would guess there's an entirely different Olympian dinner at the gymnastic team's table.

"You could move and sit next to one of the gymnasts and see one-third of the calories," she said. While Phelps is a constant swimming machine, other types of athletes, such as divers like Colwill or swim sprinters, work through shorter, concentrated bursts of energy .

"Take a discus thrower: They're big. They still require a lot of calories, but they are only going to take in 3,000 calories," Applegate said.

Gymnasts, who are slender in size and work in similar short bursts of energy, have to pack daily nutritional needs into fewer calories.

"The gymnasts would know exactly what to eat, and be very precise," said Applegate, who adds that female gymnasts would have to be extra strict. In this case sex, not size, matters. Pound for pound, women burn fewer calories then men do, simply by the difference in their bodies.

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