Gold on the menu

Gold on the menu

Eating the right thing at the right time is key not just for Olympians but also for an aging population
February 18, 2014

On television, Olympic competitions appear to be seamlessly orchestrated events, but behind the scenes, things are often “completely frenetic,” says Stuart Phillips, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University. Phillips should know; he’s had a “backstage” vantage point at previous Olympic Games where he was able to observe one environment in which eating for optimal performance — his main research interest — is under tremendous pressure.

In those final days and minutes before athletes compete, what they eat can have a deciding impact on their performance. “If you’ve rehearsed and practised under certain conditions and your routine is disrupted, it can become a huge issue,” says Phillips. “It might be a nutritional thing, or it might be psychological.” Although most highly tuned athletes have some degree of flexibility for changes in their routine, a different meal at a different time than is customary may be too much to tolerate just before an event. And in the harried rush to get to an event on time, in an unfamiliar place, things sometimes do not go as planned.

“It all sounds really easy,” says Phillips. “But the number of variables to control makes it difficult. A bus can break down, things can go wrong, and instead of the food you wanted, you may end up with something else at the last minute.” When the margin for victory often comes down to fractions of a second, settling for a chocolate blini instead of that tuna sandwich you had hoped for could be enough to throw off your game. “It won’t necessarily be the deciding factor,” says Phillips, “but it could well be a deciding factor.”

Eating to maximize performance means taking in the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and micronutrients, as well as staying hydrated, the optimal combination of which depends on the individual and the sport in which he or she is competing. An event that lasts for several hours, like long-haul cross-country skiing, for example, might require that an athlete load up on carbohydrates in the days and hours before the event, and most athletes need more protein than what is recommended for the general population. Many Olympians will have arrived in Sochi with a finely tuned menu plan developed with a sports nutritionist.

Phillips, who helped draft the International Olympic Committee’s Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, is an expert in how exercise and dietary protein interact to either build or deplete muscle. When he first became interested in this area, he was studying young people and athletes, but his focus has more recently shifted to applying what he’s learned from young people to an aging population. “It can be very difficult to draw a line between Olympians and older people,” explains Phillips. “Performance is a relative thing. Your performance goal as you age might be to continue being able to climb the stairs or rise from a chair.”

To describe muscle protein and how it’s maintained, Phillips uses the analogy of a brick wall, in which the bricks are amino acids, to explain how muscle mass builds up or deteriorates. “It’s as if there is someone at one end of the brick wall putting bricks in and someone at the other end taking bricks out. If you have more bricks going in than out, you have muscle growth. In older people, the bricks are often coming out faster than they’re going in. So older people should eat more bricks.”

To measure this process, Phillips’ research group uses two labs at McMaster: One is a “wet lab” housing equipment funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation used to analyze blood and tissue samples; the other looks a little bit like a gym. Research subjects are asked to follow a particular diet before visiting the lab. During the test, the subject is instructed to perform some task like lifting weights or walking on a treadmill while an infusion pump slowly injects an amino acid into the subject’s blood. This amino acid is slightly heavier than other naturally occurring amino acids, and the rate at which the marker amino acid is taken up by the subject’s muscles can be measured by taking tissue samples and analyzing their weight. With this information, Phillips’ team can determine how different diets containing various amounts and types of proteins interact with exercise. From this, the research team will be able to design eating regimes with the best “wall-building” potential to help individuals maintain muscle strength as they age.

“Olympic athletes who are at their physical and psychological peak provide a good model for how you’d like to age,” says Phillips. “They are very mobile and know how to get the last drop out of their bodies. We’ve made good use of the knowledge we’ve gained from young people by applying it to older people to help them retain muscle, which is, in many ways, more intrinsically rewarding.”

This is one in a series of stories on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games through the eyes of five CFI-funded researchers.