Want to Eat Like an Olympic Athlete? Seven Tips for a Healthy Gut

Posted on by Susan Levin, MS, RD, CSSD

fruits+vegetablesPrebiotics, like rice and beans, pair well with probiotics, like kimchi, and may provide a natural doping effect, powering athletes through their training and to the 2016 Olympic Games. Olympic athletes often make waves for all-star performances and for bringing home the gold, but few talk about one of the secrets to staying in the game: a healthy gut. While additional research is needed, preliminary findings suggest probiotics – available in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and miso – may provide a natural and clean “doping effect” when paired with prebiotics, or fiber-packed foods. Similar to NFL stars Tom Brady, Griff Whalen, and Jarvis Landry, who rely on plant-based fuel to rapidly repair muscle fibers and energy stores, a few Rio-bound athletes – world tennis champ Serena Williams, beach volleyball star April Ross, and weightlifter Kendrick Farris – are all using a plant-based diet to prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games. Want to take a page from their playbook? Here are seven ways to get started: 1. Build meals around plant-based foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. A varied, colorful diet ensures adequate antioxidant consumption. This supports strong immune function and helps our bodies fight back against oxidative stress. In a rush? Throw a cup of wild blueberries in your oatmeal or add a half-cup of kidney beans to your favorite vegetable entrée. Each source provides a day’s worth of antioxidants, but our bodies likely benefit from much more. 2. Aim to consume at least 50 to 55 grams of fiber a day. In addition to supporting strong immune function, high-fiber diets regulate blood sugar, improve blood flow, lower cholesterol, and help us feel full. Studies show that adding 14 grams of daily fiber to our diet decreases net calorie intake by 10%. Start small. Incorporate foods with 5 grams of fiber at every meal: try an apple or pear for breakfast or as a mid-morning snack; a cup of cooked carrots or sweet potatoes for lunch; and a cup of steamed broccoli or ancient grains, like quinoa or buckwheat pasta, for dinner. 3. Include at least 5 to 8 grams of daily prebiotics, the equivalent to two cups of raw dandelion greens or a half-cup of edamame. These foods fuel probiotics, organisms that regulate our health. While all prebiotics contain fiber, not all fiber is a natural prebiotic. Asparagus, leeks, onions, oats, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes and bananas count. 4. Integrate probiotics, or fermented foods, into your diet. Good sources include sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and kombucha. Probiotics help maintain symbiosis, or microbial harmony, and often call the shots for simple tasks, like regulating hunger, hormones and pain. Preliminary research finds certain strands may form a protective barrier in the respiratory tract and prevent viral infections, giving athletes an extra edge against their competition. This is where the “natural doping” claim fits in. 5. Steer clear of red meat, high-fat dairy products, fried foods, food additives and highly processed foods, like candy bars, corn dogs and sausage links. These foods create an environment where bad bacteria flourish, increasing the risk for chronic disease. 6. Moderate fat intake. Limit fat intake so that it’s a small portion of your meal, about the size of your thumb, and opt for healthful varieties, like an ounce of nuts or seeds. This prevents plaque build-up, reducing the risk for blood clots, heart attacks, or stroke, and allows your body to convert oxygen at a faster rate. 7. Limit antibiotic use and skip it altogether if you have a viral illness, like the common cold. Antibiotics wipe out the good bacteria, along with the bad. Remember, just like athletes create a precision nutrition plan to propel their game, use these tips as guidelines that fit into your lifestyle. A clean bill of health can be just as rewarding as setting a world record this August. As Coach Levin, I’m cheering for you! Photo from here, with thanks.