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LOOK LIKE AN OLYMPIC ATHLETE, DON'T EAT LIKE ONE
A 12,000 calorie diet not recommended for the weekend athlete
When Michael Phelps swims, he doesn't just beat his competition—he slaughters them.
He attacks food with the same intensity, annihilating everything in sight. Phelps reportedly consumes 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day—starting with three fried-egg sandwiches loaded with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise. And that's just his breakfast appetizer. Next, he fills up on a five-egg omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast topped with powdered sugar, and three chocolate-chip pancakes.
His lunch would easily feed a family of four: a pound of enriched pasta and two large ham-and-cheese sandwiches slathered with mayo on white bread, and a 1,000-calorie energy drink. His dinner is usually another pound of pasta and an entire pizza, washed down with another 1,000-calorie energy drink.
OK, we get it: extraordinary athletes have to do extraordinary things. But is all this food really necessary?
Not really, says Tara Gidus, R.D., a dietician for the NBA's Orlando Magic. "When he's training and putting in more distance, he's burning more calories—but [during competition] he's usually in the pool for less than 10 minutes," she says. "Right now, he's not burning 12,000 calories."
That's not to say that Phelps doesn't need a lot of energy to maintain his gold-medal physique. At 6-4 and 195 pounds, Gidus estimates his body fat to be around 6 percent. That means the majority of his weight is metabolically active muscle. Because each pound of muscle burns an extra 35 calories a day, the guy is losing weight while he's sleeping. "Michael Phelps [sitting] on a chair is probably burning more than we do on a treadmill," she says.
Gidus estimates Phelps needs 6,000 to 7,000 calories to get through his current schedule.
And be careful what lessons you take from the Olympic record-holder. While elite athletes burn up to 3,000 calories a day, the weekend athlete is lucky to burn 500 calories in a 45-minute cardio session. It doesn't take much to replace those calories—have a sports drink and an extra-large portion of dinner and you might actually gain weight. That explains why you see the same overweight people on the elliptical machine at your gym, month after month—weight loss is a combination of exercise and nutrition. Doing just one and your results are likely to be unsatisfying.
You're not the only one battling the bulge—athletes often battle with weight gain after they retire. Used to eating more than twice the calories of the average man, their appetites don't stop when the exercise does. Gidus said the NFL has a problem with obesity among its retired stars.
"You have the [athletic] body type that burns a lot of calories, but when you're not burning a couple thousand calories while training, you're going to gain," she says.
If you're eating like Phelps but not winning any medals, Gidus recommends filling up on low-calorie foods like yogurt, high-fiber cereal, turkey on whole wheat bread, salmon, chicken, a bowl of chili, a whole wheat bean burrito, or fresh fruit.
"My rules of thumb are fiber and/or protein," says Gidus. "These foods digest for the longest amounts of time in your stomach."
It may not make you an Olympic poster boy. But it will keep you healthy and trim.