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Canada's 2010 Olympic athletes eat their way to gold

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Eating is basic to our survival, yet it's one of the biggest challenges for Canada's 2010 Olympic athletes.

Standing at the kitchen counter chopping carrots and boiling pasta is a chore when you can barely lift your arms over your head after a hard workout in the gym.

Knowing what to eat, when to eat and how to prepare it is crucial to quality training and medal-winning performances.

Takeout and frozen meals aren't great options because those foods often have high fat content and not enough fuel for eight runs a day on the sliding track or gym and ice sessions at the speedskating oval.

"Wholesome food takes more time to prepare," says Kelly Anne Erdman, a Calgary sports nutritionist and former Olympic cyclist. "It's easy to get enough calories, but it's not easy to get quality calories."

Some of Canada's Olympians seek help to eat. The bobsled and skeleton team hired a chef for training camps and recent races in Whistler, B.C. Those who live in Calgary have access to a daily lunch program at the University of Calgary with food created for their nutritional needs.

An Olympian's engine needs to be fed constantly throughout the day.

"It's better to eat small meals throughout the day so they're easier to digest," speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon explains. "You maintain a flatter glucose level instead of it jumping up and down all day".

The amount of food each athlete needs depends on his or her sport, body type and training regimen, Erdman says. A male athlete requires about 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day and a female 2,500 to 3,500.

By comparison, Canada's Food Guide recommends 2,500 calories a day for a sedentary male aged 19 to 30 and 1,900 for a woman of the same age and activity level.

The members of the men's bobsled team are among the biggest eaters, requiring 4,000 calories a day in peak training.

Built like football linebackers, they explode off the start line and spend hours in the weight room building muscles specifically for that purpose.

"These athletes have to be very large and yet move very quickly," says strength and conditioning coach Quinn Sekulich. "Providing the proper nutrition for them is getting them to do that."

The bobsled and skeleton team hired Calgary chef Kevin Pelissier to cook for them at their World Cup races in Whistler in early February and at their training camps there over the winter.

After a morning session on the track, the athletes head over to Pelissier's condo with plastic storage containers in hand to take his creations back to their living quarters. They'll return for an evening meal, so Pelissier turns on the stove at 8 a.m. and doesn't turn it off until 10 p.m.

"He does all the thinking and the cooking," says Saskatoon bobsleigh pilot Lyndon Rush. "It takes a load off our minds, feeds our bellies and keeps us happy."

At the Main Dish restaurant in Calgary, Pelissier also makes takeaway meals for the sliders plus Wotherspoon and the luge team's Regan Lauscher.

Lauscher, who is partial to Pelissier's cheddar and broccoli salad, estimates she requires 2,500 calories per day.

"I'm not somebody who likes to cook or is really great at meal planning," Lauscher says. "For a sport like luge, not only do you need food for your body, but people forget you need food for your brain.

"When you're going 130 kilometres per hour, you need to be alert."

Pelissier's first rule of cooking for the big-eating bobsled team is don't run out of food. A typical lunch is two grilled chicken breasts per person, a soup option and a choice of two salads. For dessert, Pelissier's pumpkin bars are a hit.

"The last thing you want to do is hear them complaining they didn't get fed," Pelissier says. "The second would be that balance of nutrition and flavour. You can do great-tasting food and still have that emphasis on clean carbs or nutrition.

"The third part is variety. Twenty days is a long time to be cooking so if you can't mix it up . . . they don't want to be seeing plain grilled chicken breasts every day."

Eating is emotionally, not just physically, satisfying and Pelissier sees the difference he makes in the athletes' lives.

"If they were cooking for themselves, they'd be cooking as much as they train," he explains. "You're the one person they're happy to see.

"They're tired of the coach, they're tired of being beat on by the massage therapist, they're tired of seeing the weight trainer, so the one person they're not going to be grumpy towards is the chef."

At the University of Calgary dining hall, chef Aurelio Gualtieri aims for the lowest possible fat content and the highest protein and carbohydrates he can get in one dish.

His creations are popular with students and faculty, who pay between $9 and $15, but Canada's Olympic athletes pay just $5 for the Fuel For Gold lunch program because they're subsidized through the Canadian Sport Centre.

On this day, the menu features lean beef with barbecue sauce on a whole-wheat bun. There's also coleslaw that has a spicy kick but no mayonnaise.

Gualtieri can actually make a low-fat fettuccine Alfredo, using skim milk, apple juice, vinegar, a seaweed-based thickener and minimal parmesan cheese. The classic version of the dish is usually made with heavy cream, butter and cheese.

Gualtieri's lunches are a highlight in Gillian Ferarri's day.

"I go to the university here as well, so I might have scheduled my courses around this," says the Thornhill, Ont., native, a defenceman with the Canadian women's hockey team. "It makes things a lot simpler.

"If you want to keep your nutrition what it should be, you need to do a lot of shopping, get a lot of fresh food and a lot of preparation goes in into that. This kind of takes all that out of our hands."

Fuel For Gold's lunches, sponsored by HBC, EnCana and Alberta's egg, beef, pork and turkey producers, are the athletes' most important meals of the day because many do their hardest training in the morning.

"It makes a big difference for recovery to eat right away because that's when your body is absorbing nutrients faster and that's when you can recover the best," Wotherspoon explains. "If you wait a bit, you start using other energy stores that you have and you can train your body to store fat if you start eating too late after training."

For alpine skier Kelly VanderBeek of Kitchener, Ont., building leg power to navigate the steep turns of a downhill course requires between 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day in peak training.

Consuming that much food isn't easy, even with boyfriend and Olympic whitewater kayaker David Ford cheering her on at the dinner table.

"As soon as I don't eat enough, then the muscles degenerate and they get a lot smaller a lot quicker," VanderBeek says. "When I'm nervous and excited, I have trouble eating enough. David will say 'Eat. You are in a gravity sport. Eat."'

Food supplier President's Choice is a sponsor of Canada's alpine team and has involved the skiers in product development. The athletes are testing foods such as high-protein cereal and fruit smoothies.

The snowboarders, alpine and freestyle skiers find training and competing in the cold sucks calories from their bodies.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm still digesting one meal and I have to eat more," says Vancouver alpine skier Britt Janyk, who requires five feedings a day. "As the season goes on it's important to keep your weight up and not lose strength."

It's easier for athletes to manage meals at home in their own kitchens with supplementary support from nutritionists, Fuel For Gold or food sponsors such as the Main Dish. It's on the road in Europe or Asia where eating is the more challenging.

When Ferrari returned from the world women's championship in China last year, she found her muscle mass had decreased dramatically because of her diet there.

"We weren't eating at all," she said.

Wotherspoon agrees that it's more difficult to eat properly on the road.

"It's a little harder and it depends where you are and how good you are at making the right choices too," he says. "Sometimes you don't have a choice. You just have to eat what's at the buffet or what's out for breakfast."

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A quick look at what Olympic hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser eats in a typical day:

Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries, two poached eggs, a piece of dark rye toast, a cup of green tea.

Morning workout

11 a.m snack: Protein shake.

Lunch: Tomato soup, green salad and a piece of quiche.

3 p.m. meal: Shrimp stir fry with pasta and salad, yogurt and a pear.

Evening practice

9 p.m. snack: Post-practice protein shake and an apple.

Bedtime snack: Bowl of cereal.

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-With files from Canadian Press reporters Dean Bennett, Greg Joyce and Jim Morris

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