The Olympic Diet of Michael Phelps

Questions and answers about the high-calorie diet that fuels the Olympic swimmer's championship performance.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 13, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 13, 2008 -- His body may resemble the trim, athletic figure of Michelangelo's statue of David, but the diet of Michael Phelps sure doesn't sound like the stuff of champions.

The U.S. Olympic swimmer told ESPN that he eats roughly 8,000-10,000 calories a day, including "lots of pizza and pasta." In addition to stuffing down carbs, he's said that he routinely eats foods like fried egg sandwiches.

So exactly how do all those calories help fuel the most decorated Olympic athlete in history? Here are some questions and answers about the Michael Phelps diet.

How can Michael Phelps eat 10,000 calories a day and still be so lean?

There is no doubt he packs away a ton of food, but it is unlikely that he actually eats that many calories a day, an expert believes. University of Pittsburgh Director of Sports Nutrition Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, says eating 10,000 calories a day is almost impossible. "To consume 10,000 calories a day, he would need to be eating all day long."

Penn State University director of sports nutrition, Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, agrees. "In the course of a day there are only so many hours to eat, digest, rest, and train [reports suggest he trains six hours a day] and it is almost impossible to consume 10,000 calories of whole foods." She says most athletes are stuffed after consuming a meal of 1,500 calories of whole foods.

Bonci estimates that to support his 6-foot-4-inch, approximately 190-pound frame, Phelps' rigorous training regime requires roughly 1,000 calories per hour while he is racing or training; she suggests he probably eats closer to 6,000 calories per day.

Clark suggests he is probably supplementing his meals with specially formulated energy drinks that are concentrated in calories, including easy-to-absorb fats (which contain 2.5 times more calories than carbs or protein) to reach higher calorie levels closer to 8,000 per day.

What does Michael Phelps eat for breakfast?

NBC commentator Bob Costas rattled off Phelps' breakfast menu, which includes three sandwiches of fried eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, mayonnaise, an omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, and three chocolate-chip pancakes.

Without knowing the exact details of the portions, recipes, and ingredients, this meal probably contains roughly 3,000 calories, about half from carbohydrates, a little less than half from fat, and 15% from protein. It's not a bad distribution of major nutrients for competition, according to dietary recommendations, assuming the breads are whole grain, the cheese is low fat, and the fats used to fry the eggs are healthy. The addition of fruit would improve the nutritional profile of this meal, Bonci says.

Is it bad to eat high-fat foods even if you don't gain weight?

Athletes need a diet rich in healthy carbohydrates and fats to provide the necessary energy to compete. "Athletes need fat but, they need to be selective about the type of fat and whenever possible choose unsaturated fats such as olive or canola oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds," says Bonci. Fried and greasy foods are generally not recommended for athletes -- or anyone else.

Wouldn't Phelps feel bloated during a race?

Managing food intake is a huge challenge to all athletes to be sure they have enough calories to fuel their event without being bloated. Bonci advises athletes to take advantage of nutrient-dense liquids like smoothies that empty from the stomach more quickly than solid foods. "We encourage athletes to eat foods that are high in calories and small in volume -- so granola with fruit and yogurt would be a better choice than flake cereal with milk." Timing of meals and snacks is an important issue for athletes to help them get the calories and nutrients they need without feeling stuffed and interfering with competition.

If you're not an Olympic athlete, how much should you eat?

Compared to Olympic athletes, most of us need to follow the general guidelines of approximately 2,000 calories per day, adjusted for age, sex, and physical activity levels. The average weekend athlete burns about 200-700 calories an hour running on the treadmill, whereas Phelps probably burns 3,000 calories a day swimming. Most athletes need three to four times as much as the rest of us to keep their bodies strong and energized for competition.

How does Phelps balance eating, sleeping, and recovering so he is ready for the next race?

It is a delicate balancing act, and sometimes Phelps has had only one hour to rest between races. Keeping muscles fueled and ready for record-breaking races requires a regime of eating enough to provide readily available energy, and then resting and repairing the stressed, overworked muscles to prepare for the next race. "Within 15 minutes of finishing a race, Phelps should eat a small meal of two-thirds carbs and one-third protein, with a little healthy fat to start and optimize the recovery process," says Bonci. Recovery is critical to repairing muscles and getting them ready for the next event. Bonci advises athletes to think of recovery as the appetizer -- followed by a meal within an hour or two -- and then rest. She warns that eating too much can interfere with the body's ability to sleep or get a good rest.

Show Sources


Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh.

Kristine Clark, PhD, RD, director of sports nutrition, assistant professor of nutrition, Penn State University.

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