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UF dietitian: Olympics can inspire us to eat better


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The grace. The drama. The gravity defying spins.

Figure skating keeps a lot of us glued to the screen.

But before you achieve complete couch-potato status this Winter Olympics, take a cue from the dietary habits of the athletes you see onscreen, says a dietitian with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“Olympians can teach us a lot about how to eat for better health and performance,” said Kaley Mialki, youth programs specialist and registered dietitian nutritionist with the UF/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program.

“Fueling and hydrating properly are very important to help us perform our best, whether we are Olympians or average exercisers. While we may not need the same amount of food as Olympians, like Olympians, we can benefit from high quality protein, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Mialki explained.

The biggest difference between the general population and top athletes is the number of calories each group needs to consume, she said.

“Olympic athletes typically have much higher activity levels than the rest of the population, which greatly impact their calorie needs,” Mialki said. Calorie needs also depend on the type of sport, training and competition schedule, body size and composition, and other factors, she said.

“Like athletes, calorie needs for healthy adults depend on age, height, weight, sex and activity level. Most women need between 1,600 to 2,400 calories, and men need between 2,000 to 3,000 calories,” Mialki said.

However, in many ways, nutrition recommendations for Olympians are similar to those for the typical active person, she said. For example, highly trained athletes only need slightly more protein per pound of body weight than the recreational exerciser.

“Some people believe eating extra protein helps build muscle. While protein is an important nutrient for athletes, exercise and training are responsible for building muscle size and strength, not eating excess protein,” Mialki said.

Some exercisers may choose to get protein from powders or supplements, but there is no evidence that they do more for athletes than protein from food sources, Mialki said.

“When we are able, it’s best to get all of our nutrients from whole food sources, including protein. There are many foods with high quality protein, such as lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy foods, beans, tofu, seeds, nuts, and nut butters,” she said.

Adults aren’t the only ones who can learn from the healthy habits of Olympic athletes, Mialki said.

“The upcoming Winter Olympics Games are an appropriate time for parents to discuss the importance of living an active and healthy lifestyle with their children,” Mialki said. “Parents can explain to their children that Olympians perform their best when they take care of their bodies by training and eating foods that are good for them. Just like Olympians, kids can ‘train’ to perform their best by spending time being active, training for a sport or other activity, studying for school and eating foods that will help them grow up strong.”

Parents can also instill healthy habits by being good role models for kids, she said.

“Parents can eat a balanced diet and be physically active to encourage their kids to do the same. Parents and kids could cook an Olympic-themed meal together or create a backyard Olympic game to play as a family,” Mialki said.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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