Phelps' Calorie Count Contributes To Medal Count

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Media reports have said that Olympic champion Michael Phelps consumes as many as 12,000 calories in a day. Sports dietician Caroline Mandel says that's not unusual for a competitive swimmer. She talks about the eating habits of athletes.


That fantastic finish for Michael Phelps leaves him just hours away from a chance at a record eighth Olympic gold medal. Now, training for this moment takes a lot of practice, a lot of heart and a whole lot of food.

Here's what Phelps told NBC about his eating habits.

Mr. MICHAEL PHELPS (American Olympic Swimmer): I was told that I was supposed to eat between, like, eight and ten thousand calories a day. And just sort of try to cram whatever I can into my body.

SEABROOK: And according to the New York Post, he crams a lot. A typical Phelps meal: three fried egg sandwiches, three slices of French toast, a bowl of grits, a five-egg omelet, three chocolate chip pancakes - and that's just breakfast. The diet sounds deadly but trainers say consuming that many calories isn't all that unusual for a competitive swimmer.

It's Science Out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Caroline Mandel is a sports dietician at the University of Michigan. That's where Michael Phelps goes to school. She joins us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor. Welcome.

Ms. CAROLINE MANDEL (Sports Dietician, University of Michigan): Thank you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: First of all, is it even possible? I mean, how do you even do that? Eat eight, ten, maybe twelve thousand calories in a day?

Ms. MANDEL: It's absolutely possible and also absolutely necessary for an athlete who's burning this many calories a day. If he's not eating that many calories, he would lose weight as muscle and that would impair his performance.

SEABROOK: So, how does a body burn that many calories?

Ms. MANDEL: About two-thirds of our calories are burned by our resting metabolic rate - the calories that we burn just to breathe and pump blood. If you were to lay on my office floor for 24 hours, you would burn anywhere between six and twelve calories per pound of body weight just to lay there and do nothing, not even twiddle your thumbs.

SEABROOK: Oh good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANDEL: For Michael Phelps, if he weighs about 190 pounds, he's burning close to 2,000 calories a day just to lay there and do nothing. Add onto that the thermic effect of food, an average person like you or me might burn two to four hundred calories a day just to digest. Someone who's larger than us and eating a heck of a lot more food is going to burn two or three times that many calories just in the process of digestion. He may be burning up to a thousand calories a day just for normal daily activity, and we have not even considered the calories he burns to train through exercise.

SEABROOK: So, I'm just curious. What happens when Michael Phelps isn't training for the Olympics? Does he go back to the, you know, the couple of thousand calories a day that, like, the rest of us are supposed to?

Ms. MANDEL: An interesting phenomenon that happens when an athlete decreases their training, their appetite is also going to go down. Without that training, he'll be less hungry and will eat less.

SEABROOK: And maybe fewer than three egg sandwiches and a five-egg omelet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANDEL: I can't help bringing the American Heart Association recommendations back to mind where we limit our egg yolks. And I do recommend maybe one egg yolk with a bunch of egg whites to make that omelet in the morning.

SEABROOK: Just a comment though, I'm not sure you can stomach that much calories in egg whites.

Ms. MANDEL: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANDEL: …the interesting thing about Michael Phelps, and you look at the amount of fat that he's eating, if he tried to consume the calories he requires on a low-fat diet, he would have to quit school and eat a boatload of food. It would be very uncomfortable to his stomach.

SEABROOK: Caroline Mandel is a sports dietician at the University of Michigan. She joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor. Thank you very much.

Ms. MANDEL: Thank you for having me.

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