I just read Ottermatic’s post on the difference in how the diets of Michael Phelps and female swimmer Kate Ziegler are presented by the media. She linked to this post in which video clips on the topic are provided.

And the clips are ridiculous and infuriating. Ziegler calls herself a pig for eating a couple of slices of toast and a couple of eggs after a workout. And her trainer is an asshole, shaming her for her supposed former diet including instant oatmeal, cereal, pizza, and burgers. Note that Ziegler herself cops only to the instant oatmeal and cereal, saying she didn’t eat a lot of pizza or burgers before–but I guess even once is too many if you want to win approval as a good healthy thin little girl.

I am just so heartsick that the concept that there is something wrong with you if you are a woman who eats more than, say, 1,500 calories a day, or more than 350 calories for a meal, or anything other than local raw unprocessed organic whole grain low-fat-except-olive-oil grass-fed salt-free lean protein, has now bled over into OLYMPIC COMPETITION. I am all in favor of nutrition, but let’s fucking leave these people alone to work out their own dietary and training needs so they can optimize their performance. I believe that at some point the calorie mania–under which diet rations somehow became the only “normal” and “acceptable” level of intake for women in our society, regardless of their individual needs–is going to start degrading women athletes’ performance. And I’m sure that will just end up being fodder for people to remind us how female athletes are not as good as male athletes, or whatever.

Along similar lines, Ziegler’s statement that because she eats several small meals or snacks instead of three squares, she’s “eating all day long,” echoes an idea that you hear all the time in, say, a Weight Watchers meeting. Somehow 6 200- or 300-calorie snacks a day (something like which is often recommended on diets because it supposedly keeps your blood sugar on an even keel and keeps you from getting too hungry and overeating, as you might do if you had to wait several hours between traditional meals) becomes a veritable feast that you almost feel guilty for indulging in. I’ve heard numerous women come in and claim that you get so much food on WW, they can’t eat it all!1! So not only do we have to eat like we’re dieting/starving all the time, we have to convince ourselves that this is not only an adequate but actually almost an excessive quantity of food. We almost don’t deserve even the tiny amount we get. I’m sure there aren’t any gender issues or Puritan values mixed up in that. Note I’m not blaming Ziegler for making the statement–nor do I know how much she personally eats–it’s just that the sentiment felt very familiar to me from weight-loss dieting. And IMO concepts from weight-loss dieting should not be getting mixed up in the long-term maintenance/performance regimens of world-class athletes.

Incidentally, instant oatmeal is not “fake.” I’m sure some of the flavored kinds have stuff in them that is not nutritionally ideal, but the oats in the little packet are still real and still “count.” You know, as sane people everywhere could tell little miss “clean eating” trainer there.

I’m even a little irritated that there is starting to be some backlash against Phelps in the form of look how unhealthy, look how he doesn’t cook, look how much he eats. (Not at Ottermatic or Sociological Images, just in general after NBC aired the info on his diet.) If he eats like that and is still possibly the best swimmer of all time–getting better all the time by all accounts–then I’m gonna say he’s fueling his body the way it needs to be fueled regardless of whether that makes “sense” to me or not. I really enjoyed Sandy’s post on that topic.

Anyway, the exact composition of Phelps’s diet is not really a topic of major interest to me, and also I’m sure he’s about as sick of being asked about that as he is of being asked about his medal count after team events. (Seriously, STOP DOING THAT, NBC! I have to cringe and look away whenever they interview him because the fawning and medal count obsession are so obnoxious.) Plus, if I were him, I’d never be so candid about my diet again because people are slavering over the details so much. It’s sort of creepy. And I think that hurts us as a society because IMO people need to know that athletes in general eat a lot, and they need to eat a lot–some more than others, some less–and that is OK.

Not to mention that eating “clean” is in no way a magic bullet that guarantees optimal performance. I’m sure if Phelps thought his performance would improve by switching to an all-natural diet in line with the latest nutritional standards, he’d have already made the change. We have the most bizarre investment in this country in the idea that if you just eat x and y, and never touch n or z again, you can achieve any outcome you like, up to and including immortality. In reality, I’m pretty sure we would have to have evolved as a species to function well on a wide variety of food sources, even “suboptimal” ones, and I see no reason why there would be one true ideal diet (except on a highly individual basis) that would allow you to function vastly better than another.

Again, I speak in generalities; I do believe that it’s a good idea to eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, minimally processed foods, limit your intake of chemicals, etc. I am also 100% in favor of people eating healthily and in such a way that they feel great and have lots of energy. I’m just not sure that the way to achieve this is anywhere near as universal or black and white as we’ve been led to believe, or that eating “clean” with no exceptions whatsoever is going to do any more for you than simply eating as “clean” as you can the majority of the time. And when you eat a truly wide variety of foods (which in any case is going to be easier to achieve when you’re an athlete with increased caloric needs) in amounts that are appropriate for your personal body, then my suspicion is you’re going to easily get the nutrition you need to function well.

Finally, it is irritating, but not surprising, that nobody has connected the dots around all this and gone, hey, this guy is a special case but maybe not all thin people eat sparsely? And maybe not all fat people are lying when they say they don’t eat that much? Even on an Olympic training schedule, I’d say calories in/calories out goes out the door when you’re consuming up to 10,000 per day. You’d almost think we were all unique human beings with unique metabolisms or something.