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 PhelpsPlay

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.

Applegate said that if a 140-pound female athlete and a 140-pound male athlete ran side by side, in sync, expending the same amount of energy, the female athlete would still burn 8 to 10 percent fewer calories.

"Isn't that a jip?" Applegate said.

Taking into account the differences in sex, size, sport and event, the Olympic Village in Beijing had the task of providing an endless permutation of carefully designed meal options.

6,000 Seats, 6,000 Meals, 6,000 Athletic Machines

"They're not operating in the dark. They know what's going on," Applegate said. The Olympic Village in Beijing put forth a tremendous effort to feed the Olympians -- satellite positioning systems to monitor food delivery to the compounds, bilingual dietitians to confirm that international food requests were followed, a big dining room seating up to 6,000 athletes, and special menus to accommodate cultural cuisine preferences and religious dietary laws.

"They don't just offer chicken tenders and fries," Applegate said.

"Going in, there was a concern, but once you get settled in, you realize it's not so bad. It's good to have the staff and the USOC there for us," Colwill said. "It's nice to have Americanized food every now and then, but the food choices have been great."

Colwill, who sticks to a high-protein diet with plenty of lean chicken, is satisfied with the food at the Olympic Village. "There's a Mediterranean section, international section, Asian section. They've got all kinds of variety. You could wind up eating everything. That could be a problem, but I try my best not to put so much on my plate," Colwill said.

Recovery Meals Just as Important As Pre-Game Calories

Yet many of the athletes don't exactly line up high-school-cafeteria style and grab what they want. On the contrary, some Olympic teams plan their meals as part of an elaborate performance agenda.

"Meals are typically pretty specific. They sort of go through an approval process by the staff ... but not like everybody has two green beans and an exact portion of steak," said Dr. Michael Terry, one of several team doctors for the U.S. men's volleyball team and the men's ski team. He is a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago but acts as a general physician for the teams he follows.

Instead, the three square meals and snacks fed to the volleyball team focus on a strategic preparation: high-energy carbs through pasta or vegetables before a game, and high-protein meals with selections such as steak, other red meat or chicken.

"They need to be constantly looking forward to the next match," Terry said. "The recovery meals and the recovery drinks are just as important as their pregame meals."

Even sleep becomes strategic. "We will issue the guys different sleep regulations and schedules -- when they should see the sun and when they shouldn't so they can get acclimated," Terry said.

Yet Terry said helpful planning doesn't mean the physicians and trainers become babysitters.

"The guys are professionals, so they know what the deal is," he said. "Nobody's twisting their arm at the dinner table."

ABC News' Lauren Cox reported from New York, and Jo Ling Kent from Beijing.