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Olympic Nutrition Vital to the Athletes - 2002-02-17

The dining hall in Salt Lake City's Olympic Village has a huge responsibility: preparing thousands of nutritious meals each day that meet the cultural and nutritional needs and desires of people from all over the world. Dr. Kristine Clark has worked with U.S. Olympic women's soccer and field hockey teams and is now director of Sports Nutrition at Penn State University. VOA's Sarah Long spoke with Dr. Clark about the nutrition needs of Olympians.

Good nutrition is important for everyone. But Kristine Clark says the demands that athletes place on their bodies mean they must be especially vigilant in meeting their daily nutritional requirements. "Athletes need a different diet than non-athletes because they're exercising six to seven hours a day. And they're burning calories during their physical activity at a rate that is just completely different than a non-athlete, who may walk 30 minutes a day and burn some calories, certainly, but the energy needs are completely different," she says.

Dr. Clark says Olympic athletes need foods that provide enough energy to sustain them through their long practices and performances. But she says there's more to it than that: "They need energy to fuel their activity. But they also need energy to recover," she says. "So we talk about sports nutrition in terms of, 'what are you eating before exercise, what are you eating after exercise to recover and heal and get you ready for the next competition. And frequently, athletes need to eat during competition, because their competition or their events are so long."

The sports physician says this means that many foods should be available that are convenient and need no refrigeration: a bagel with peanut butter, for example, or dried fruits. The doctor says dried fruits are one of the best sources of energy. But she points out that a well-rounded diet for an athlete also contains the same types of foods that are good for everyone: fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains, carbohydrates and protein. "We want athletes to be aware that a variety of foods is important so that they're getting a wide scope of vitamins and minerals into their diet," she says. Dr. Clark also strongly recommends that Olympians eat six or more times a day. This approach helps them sustain energy throughout the day. In fact, she says six small meals a day is best for everyone as long as they pay attention to their total calorie intake. Olympic athletes need six or seven thousand calories a day. Non-athletes need just two-thousand or less.

Kristine Clark says that in her experience, Olympic Village dining halls have always done a terrific job in providing the kinds of meals the athletes need. "I think that we do a very, very good job at the Olympic Village, offering an incredible variety of food from all five food groups," she says. "We also try to cater to the needs of different cultures and backgrounds. I don't think the challenge is as difficult supplying the food, [as it is] just encouraging the athletes to take in as much [food as they need] at each meal. Sometimes they're exhausted and they're not interested in taking in as many calories as they need. But, for the most part, they do realize that they do need to keep their energy level up to be as competitive as they have to be."

Dr. Kristine Clark says Olympic athletes today are probably better fed and certainly better informed than at any time in history. Nutrition experts, such as herself, along with Olympic dining halls that provide all the nutrition that an athlete needs, help contribute to Olympians' peak performances.