Healthful food should be enjoyed, says swimmer Natalie Coughlin, shown… (Barbara Walton / EPA )
Swimmer Natalie Coughlin didn't earn 11 Olympic medals by eating junk food. The 29-year-old has been interested in food since her days at UC Berkeley, when she began to break out of her grilled chicken and broccoli habit and explore more appealing fare.
That led her to start cooking for herself, reading books on food and growing fruit, vegetables and herbs at her home in Northern California. We spoke with Coughlin recently about why good nutrition is important for athletes--even weekend warriors--and why good food should be enjoyed.
How did you become interested in food and nutrition?
A. In high school I was something of a picky eater. I liked everything super plain, and didn't enjoy food as much as I do now. Then I went to UC Berkeley and after a year of dorm food, I realized how much I wanted to learn how to cook. That's where I started expanding my horizons.
I took a cooking class and started reading food magazines and books and watching food shows on TV. When I started experimenting with cooking at first it was all about rich foods, because it's pretty easy to make a delicious meal when you're working with rich foods. But since then I've made my recipes much more healthful. I try to eat a plant-based diet as much as possible and eat as few processed foods as possible. I save things like a great cut of meat or butter for when they'll add a ton of flavor.
Did anyone have any influence on your interest in nutrition, such as a coach?
A. No, it was nothing anyone told me to do. When I was growing up I never liked sauce on anything, and if I saw any visible fat on food it would freak me out. I didn't like meat at all as a kid. That's just how I ate, and I guess my parents didn't mind too much because I still ate vegetables and fruit.
When I started dating my husband I would go to his family's house and his mom would cook steak, and I ate it. I realized I liked it. I was willing to try different foods.
You've said that you think some athletes over-think nutrition. What do you mean by that?
A. When it comes to food they can think a lot about calories and protein grams and break foods into micronutrients. It's important to know the basics of what minerals and nutrients are in food, and I think it takes the pleasure out of food when you break it down so much--it's almost like a science project.
For the most part I think it's good to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. I think food is something pleasurable, I enjoy eating, and it makes me happy. I also try to eat healthfully, but at the same time I don't think of counting every single calorie or gram of protein. I don't worry about things nearly as much as some athletes.
You have to educate yourself on food and how they're made, and I think cooking is a great way to do that because you see what goes into every one of those dishes.
What advice would you give to people who exercise, but aren't elite athletes?
A. Between 2008 and 2010 I wasn't competing, I was just an active person, so I ate pretty much the same as I do now, very healthfully, but I ate far less. When you're working out five hours a day you can ingest more food than if you're working out for an hour a day. People ask me, 'You're an elite athlete, shouldn't your diet should be different from the every day person?' I disagree. It should be very similar.
That's not to say I don't indulge every once in a while. My guiltiest pleasure is probably a hot dog. I think it's important to know what you're eating and enjoy it, but only do it every once in a while.