10 Questions for Olympic Diet Expert Dr. Louis E. Grivetti

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GL: What about drinks? Would athletes simply drink water for hydration?

LG: I would expect that water mixed with wine would have been consumed by some athletes. The water—flowing from the nearby river at the site—would have been contaminated and could have led to gastrointestinal problems. By adding a little wine, the alcohol would have killed off some of the pathogens—but not all.

GL: Were food and drink served at the early Olympics?

LG: There is no evidence that food and drink were served to spectators. The assumption is that spectators (only adult men, as women were forbidden upon pain of death to attend the games) would have "camped out" and brought their own food or scrounged at the nearby town settlement.

GL: What can you tell us about the diets of modern-day Olympians? How have they have evolved over, say, the last century?

LG: This is difficult, because several factors are at work: One, science-based nutrition-related information, and, two, antidotal, hunch-based efforts by trainers and charlatans with little to no training in nutrition science.

The Berlin 1936 Games provide a snapshot of athletic diets at the time: white bread, bananas, tomatoes, and beefsteak. Today, and for nearly all of the post–World War II Olympic Games, different theories have come and gone; some have efficacy, while others lie more in the realm of magic, folklore, and superstition.

In the late 1960s and early '70s it was discovered that "carbo-loading" worked to improve performance in long-distance/long-endurance races (for example, marathons, cross-country skiing), but carbo-loading would have had no effect on short-term/quick-action sports like sprints and track and field events. Then caffeine came along, which does have a positive effect on elite long-distance runners but would have had no impact on quick-action sports.

There has also been focus on protein during the past 20 to 30 years, with the highly touted claim that protein builds muscle. This is only partially true.

GL: So how much of a role does nutrition play in the performance of elite athletes?

LG: It is commonly said among the colleagues I know and respect that athletic excellence is 60 percent genetic (height, lung capacity, muscle type, and the like); 20 percent training; 10 percent nutrition; and 10 percent intangibles coupled with adrenalin (knowing that you are ahead in a race, or knowing the person in front of you is fading). Also part of that 10 percent is luck and chance.

GL: There was a recent article in The New York Times about whether Olympic athletes can be vegans. What is your opinion, given that, as you mentioned earlier, some athletes in antiquity ate an almost vegan diet?

LG: So long as the vegan athlete takes in all the essential nutrients (which can be a problem for iron, folic acid, B12) or takes a supplement, I see no reason why they cant be elite athletes as well.

GL: So is there a lesson to be learned here for other athletes—not Olympians, but perhaps professionals or the more casual athletes among us?

LG: Too many nonelite athletes fall into the trap of sales pitches for this or that product, when the real effort should be spent in proper training. There is no magic elixir that will guarantee victory—well, perhaps not exactly, if one uses steroids. The key is stress and adaptation. You can have the best diet in the world but if your genetics are not up to snuff then you will not make the U.S. Olympic team. And if you overtrain and become injured, that may be it as well.

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