With so many delicious empty calorie options out there, even elite athletes can struggle with meal choices. It’s a battle that former U.S. national volleyball team member and silver medalist Ogonna Nnamani is all too familiar with.
“When you’re young, you take advantage of your good metabolism. So we eat, eat, eat junk food,” says Nnamani. “I was really bad growing up; I would eat anything I saw. [Athletes today] need to train themselves to instill good eating habits early on, because it’s hard to change and adapt… It took me awhile to get there.”
Now sponsored by both Gatorade and Nike, Nnamani found the willpower to make nutritional changes during her Olympic career. She says, “Fueling yourself efficiently is an advantage straightaway… So [Team USA] really took healthy eating seriously. I wasn’t a breakfast person, but our coach woke us up and went through the cafeteria with us to make sure we were all eating a good breakfast.”
Though still not a fan of morning fueling, Nnamani now understands its importance. For other breakfast skippers, she encourages “solid choices” like oatmeal. “It staves off hunger, gives you energy and is just a heavy meal.”
Learning to make healthy eating choices and hanging out with “health-food junkies” during the Olympics sparked Nnaman’s nutrition turning point. “Surround yourself with people who pay attention to their eating,” she says. “I saw [teammates and friends] and said, ‘You know, I’m going to try that out,’ and then I began to see differences in how I felt and performed.”
The volleyball star’s favorite nutrition technique is to actively think about the nutritional value of each meal as she sits down. “When I get my plate, I take a step back and ask myself what is really on my plate,” she says.
Another technique she’s found useful is keeping track of what she eats with a calorie counter. “I really advise athletes to keep track of their calorie intake,” says Nnamani. “It helps you see how much protein, carbs and fiber you’re really getting in. Maybe don’t track every day, but it will help you see patterns of what you ate and how you performed.”
Like other aspects of training for sports, Nnamani reminds athletes trying to eat healthier to ” just do it.” She says, “Sometimes you have to just try it. It’s going to be a struggle, but once you see how you feel, you might not want to go back…Enjoy what you’re eating, but be really careful with what you put in your mouth, because that’s your fuel. Just like going to the gas station to fill up your [high-performance] car, you only want to put premium fuel in [your body].”
A final note from Nnamani: ” I definitely have cheat days. At least once a week I’m going to splurge and really enjoy it. I don’t have a completely squeaky clean eating record, and that’s okay with me. If you have a day like that, enjoy it and just know the next day you have to eat right and get back on track. It’s a discipline just like any training.”
Stay tuned to STACK.com for nutrition advice from other Olympians like Garrett Weber-Gale and Natalie Coughlin.