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Olympic women hockey players eat to win with gold medal diet and supplements

Players train for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Players train for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
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Meet Nutricia, the secret weapon behind the United States Olympic women's hockey team. Never heard of her? It's a nickname for Alicia Kendig, the dedicated dietitian for the players, who vowed "If an athlete’s hungry, I don’t sleep" in a Feb. 8 interview with the New York Times.

Alicia's assignment marks the first time that a sports dietitian has focused full-time on the team. The U.S. Olympic management made the decision after watching the women's hockey team finish second or third to Canada at the last three Winter Games.

“You want to have a lot of gas in the tank so you can show how good you are,” explained American coach Katey Stone. "It’s just one more piece of the puzzle so that you have an advantage, a little edge."

And what a change that "little edge" in the form of Alicia has made.

Forward Hilary Knight recalls joining the national team in 2006, when she consumed mostly peanut butter on white bread, Big Macs and chocolate shakes.

Her summary of that diet then: "All this garbage."

But now that Alicia is in charge of the team's nutrition, Knight notices the dramatic improvement.

“This is different,” said Knight, who scored Saturday’s first goal 53 seconds into the match. “Alicia has transformed this team.”

A sample menu:

  • An early morning breakfast of scrambled eggs, chopped baked potatoes, oatmeal, cereal, strawberries and blueberries.
  • Two hours later, a pregame snack of bananas and more oatmeal fortified with peanut butter and almond butter.
  • After that snack, an open buffet in the locker room that included liquid yogurt, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and shakes made of whey protein, pineapple, bananas and orange juice.

Supplements also play a role, said Liz Applegate, the director of sports nutrition for athletes at the University of California, Davis and author of "Eat Smart, Play Hard: Customized Food Plans for All Your Sports and Fitness Pursuits" (click for details).

One supplement is vitamin D, based on blood tests administered by Alicia. About half of the women on the team showed suppressed levels during testing last June and now take vitamin D3 supplements, she added.

In addition, the team supplements with beta alanine, an amino acid. It was chosen because it metabolizes and delays the onset of fatigue. As a result, athletes can perform high-intensity exercises lasting about 60 seconds, which is ideal for a hockey shift. Applegate feels the supplements play an important role.

This is what is required at the Olympic level and in professional sports. You have to gain your seconds in running or have just that edge on the ice. It isn’t just about getting a good night’s sleep and eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains.

In addition, some players drink a half liter of beetroot juice prior to the game. It's thought to dilate blood vessels and enhance blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. Other popular diet additions include smoothies made with kale and tart cherry juice to help with muscle recovery and enhance sleep.

Choosing the right fuel is critical for success, Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, who worked with athletes at the Atlanta Olympic Games, told the Boston Globe on Feb. 10. And it's important to differentiate between training diets and competition diets.

"Training diets are usually higher in calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals than competition diets. This is because the athlete is working harder during training, often two to three times a day at high-intensities, building both strength and power," added Rosenbloom, author of "Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals."

“Proper fueling during training supports the adaptations to muscles, blood, and lungs by providing key nutrients at the right time.”

The U.S. Olympic team views the diets of their athletes as so important, in fact, that prior to competition, they sent sports dietitians to Sochi prior to the competition. Their assignment: Evaluate the availability and safety of the foods that are being served to the athletes in the Olympic Village.