Food safety

Inside the world's most multi-cultural dining hall - feeding Olympians

Benefit of volunteering at the Olympics - watching the athletes in action!

Benefit of volunteering at the Olympics - watching the athletes in action!

Way back in the year 2000 I was one of a handful of very fortunate sports dietitians who had the amazing opportunity to volunteer at the Sydney Olympics, as part of the nutrition kiosk within the athlete village dining hall.  I had only graduated from dietetics a couple of years prior, and as a young professional with a passion for sports nutrition this was an event of a lifetime.  These days there are a host of dietitians who travel to Olympic Games and other major events throughout the world, but at that stage there were very few who ever got to set foot in the athlete's village, so for me it was pretty exciting!

The nutrition kiosk was created in conjunction with the catering group, and was co-ordinated by Fiona Pelly, an experienced accredited sports dietitian who is working with the catering in Rio this year and Dr Helen O'Connor from the University of Sydney.  Fiona and Helen are both fellows of Sports Dietitians Australia and Fiona was the chief nutrition advisor to the caterers, a mammoth job that Fiona did brilliantly.  The kiosk was a service for the athletes, coaches and support staff, where they could come and speak to a sports dietitian for information about the food items available, special dietary requests, allergies and intolerances, upcoming menus, and any other nutrition questions they may have.  The dietitians each day were provided with menus and a detailed breakdown of the nutrition composition and ingredients/allergens for each food item on offer.  Each dish was clearly labelled with nutrition and allergen information, and part of our role included quality checks to ensure all dishes and labels matched.  Most of us felt pretty comfortable with these roles, however what we didn't expect was the large number of athletes approaching us for training and competition nutrition advice.

Looking pretty happy with myself at the nutrition kiosk!

Looking pretty happy with myself at the nutrition kiosk!

In Australia at that point, sports dietitians were being sought by many sports for nutrition consulting and sports nutrition was growing (thanks to many passionate individual sports dietitians and organisations providing top-notch servicing and Sports Dietitians Australia working hard to promote the role of sports nutrition for athletes).  However many other countries, from all areas of the world, did not have the same access to sports nutrition services.  We had international boxers and rowers looking for making weight strategies (many who had over-consumed at the buffet), individuals with coeliac disease wanting nutrition education and even runners asking what to eat pre-, during and post-race.  Nutrition concerns that for many Australian athletes would have been addressed well before the Olympics.   It certainly opened my eyes to the bigger global picture, having never travelled too far at that point, and also the immense natural athletic talent concentrated at one sporting event.  So many athletes who didn't have access to high performance programs, sports science or sports nutrition support but were still out there competing and winning! 

One of my best memories from the Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 2006 (where I was also lucky to be back in the dining hall, thanks to Karen Inge), was the genuine gratitude shown by these athletes towards all staff involved. They were just so thrilled to be there competing, having an amazing time and learning and absorbing as much as they could from the experience. 

When it came to the food, I had never seen anything quite like an Olympic dining hall.  If you love a good buffet, this is the stuff of fairytales.  Every athlete, cuisine, culture and taste preference is catered for.   Different buffets for different continents.  Pre-prepared dishes, plus dishes made-to-order.  Plus never-ending bain-maries and fridges and cupboards and shelves of everything and anything you could imagine.  Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos, but I have included some links at the end of this post that include some dining hall pictures from previous Olympics and Rio! 

The buffet was open for most of the day, from very early in the morning until late at night to allow for early and evening competition times, and it was always busy.  Because athletes would enter the village well before competition for some of them, we spent a lot of time talking to those athletes about managing volumes when eating buffet-style every day.  You know when you are at a buffet and you want to try a bit of everything, at this buffet it would take weeks to give everything a go.  Plus the menu changed daily.  Athletes also need to take care to eat foods that sit well, for example if you weren't big on spicy foods and got stuck into the hot curries you may run into some less-desirable gut symptoms.  Buffet management was a big issue for some athletes, particularly those where weight and body composition are critical to performance, and those who needed to 'make-weight'.

McDonalds have presence in all Olympic dining halls, which originally I found a bit strange, but this aligned with sponsorship arrangements and the foods were thoroughly enjoyed by many athletes post-competition, and for some pre-event!   The range of dietary habits, and levels of interest and education in sports nutrition intrigued me.  I clearly remember seeing an athlete, who I assume was a thrower or lifter of some sort, sitting down to a breakfast of cheese, cold meats and bread (not a vegetable in sight) on a table next to a group of gymnasts with tiny bowls of fruit salad and yoghurt.  Athletes loved to meet athletes from other sports, and it was funny to see superstar athletes star-struck by other athletes in high-profile sports.  I certainly learnt a lot from observing and talking to athletes during my time in the dining hall!

These type of opportunities would not be possible if not for inclusive organisations like Sports Dietitians Australia and generous professionals like accredited sports dietitians Fiona Pelly, Helen O'Connor and Karen Inge who saw the opportunity to offer their colleagues an experience they would never forget and chose to create an initiative that allowed a team of dietitians to be involved rather than just one or two.  

I imagine that the dining hall in Rio will surpass anything that was previously provided for Olympic athletes.  Hygiene and food safety are a critical concern for every dining hall and controls are in place to ensure a positive food experience for all athletes and staff.  No doubt the athletes in Rio will be well-fuelled and hydrated with their favourite and usual foods to be able to perform at their best when their important competition day arrives. 

For more information about the catering and dining hall at Rio 2016, and some pictures of what the dining halls look like, here are some interesting articles and a link to the formal summary around the catering for these games:

So much yoghurt: what athletes in the Olympic village will be eating - interview with Fiona Pelly

http://www.cbc.ca/sports/olympics/summer/dining-room-athlete-village-1.3574905

https://www.rio2016.com/en/news/athletes-at-rio-2016-olympic-and-paralympic-village-to-be-offered-a-taste-of-brazil

Rio 2016 - Taste of the Games official booklet (pdf)

You can also read more about what Oympic athletes eat on my other two blog posts:

Marathon running nutrition - with Rio-bound Olympian Lisa Weightman:

Recover like a champion - what top Australian athletes eat after training and competition

Top nutrition tips for travelling athletes

A quick meal or snack that is easy to prepare in your hotel room

A quick meal or snack that is easy to prepare in your hotel room

Travel brings a range of challenges for athletes, and careful planning is required to make any trip a success.  I was recently on holiday, and did a lot of observing of how people eat when they are travelling and thought about what I do on holidays in an attempt to feed myself and my family well.  Then my mind turned to athletes.  Travelling for training or competition can be a particularly daunting prospect for athletes who have specific nutrition preferences and goals.  If you are staying within your local area, or country, it can be a little easier to manage, but even if heading overseas many of the basics remain the same.

Here are my top ten tips for travel nutrition on the road to ensure you are well nourished and prepared for success:  

(1) Do your research

No matter the length of your trip, if you want to eat well while you are away, you need to research and plan ahead.  Questions you need to ask include:  

- How long will I be in transit for and will there be stops along the way?

- Will any food or fluids be provided, or can I buy, or do I need to take my own food with me?

- If staying for a number of nights, where is the closest supermarket?  Big or small?  Opening hours?

- Where can I stay that has cooking facilities and a fridge?

- Local eateries - restaurants/cafes, take-away options, types of foods and costs involved?

- Food safety - do I need to be careful of what I eat and can I drink the tap water?

These questions are just a starting point, you may need to look even further into the specifics of what foods are available, depending on your individual needs.  If you know a bit about where you are staying and where you can buy food then you will save time, money and stress.

(2) BYO

If you have a specific food that you eat regularly, and it is portable, then take it with you.  Your favourite cereal, snack or spread may be hard to find in some locations, or could be extremely expensive.  Particularly for atheltes, if you have a specific routine for before/after training and competition then it may be worth taking those important items to be sure you can keep things as familiar as possible.  If you know you are organised it will put you at ease and allow you to focus on the training or event rather than scrambling to source a pre-event meal on the day.

(3) First stop - supermarket

Your first destination upon arrival should be the supermarket.  If you are travelling by plane, use the time to write a shopping list of the essentials.  Stocking up on arrival saves you time and money, and most importantly means that you can be organised to eat well from the outset.  Breakfasts are easy to self-cater, so too are snacks.  Lunches and dinners can be more of a challenge, depending on your cooking facilities and schedule, but if you plan ahead you can easily make it happen.

(4) Check opening hours

I mentioned this one earlier.  Not all supermarkets are open 24 hours.  Or Friday nights.  Or Sundays.  Check local supermarkets and eating establishments for standard opening hours in that location.  Living in Melbourne, I am spoilt to have shops open pretty much all the time, but not all locations have this luxury.  It was like when I was away recently on holidays and the first Saturday happened to be Anzac Day. There was chaos - people didn't know what to do or where to turn, and some were actually angry, when they realised shops were CLOSED......some ALL day.  Some may have struggled to put food on the table that night.......plan ahead!  Especially if you are arriving in a country town on a Saturday afternoon and you have a major competition on the Sunday night.  Get to the supermarket ASAP or your pre-event meal could be a packet of chips from the service station.

(5) Take containers

You have been to the supermarket and have everything ready to go, only to start putting together your snacks and lunch for your first day with no way to transport them!  I have made this mistake on several occasions, but now I always bring some plastic containers with me to ensure economical and environmentally friendly food storage.  Sure you have to wash them each night, but it takes probably less time than it would to be lining up to purchase snacks and lunch out and about.  It might be worth taking a small plastic chopping board and bowl also for food preparation if you won't have a kitchen.  Take a sturdy drink bottle from home too for re-filling each day.

(6) Eat in, and don't forget your kettle

Eating at home-base is a great way to know exactly what you are eating and there are plenty of quick and easy meals that you can whizz up with minimal ingredients.  Don't try to make things too complicated while travelling, stick to simple and nutritious.  Even if you are staying in the most basic of hotel rooms, you will still usually have a kettle.  Boiled water can be the base for a surprisingly large number of meals.  Cous-cous for example.  Or Hokkien noodles, or rice noodles.  You can easily get your carbohydrate option sorted (just remember you need a bowl to prepare), then you can add some fresh salads, and perhaps some tinned corn or other vegetables.  For protein you could add canned tuna, salmon or legumes, or sliced roast beef from the deli or even roast chicken.  Or you can buy some souvlaki-style meat from the local take-away to add to your meal.  Plus you could add cheese and/or nut/seeds/pestos for extra flavour, texture and nutrition .  The combinations are endless, how about these quick and tasty dishes:

- Cous-cous with rocket, chick peas, capsicum, feta and pepitas

- Asian style salad with rice noodles and sliced roast beef

- Chicken or lamb pieces (take-away), tabouli salad (purchased) and tzatziki with pita bread  

- Hokkien noodles with roast chicken, corn, spinach and pesto 

- Cous-cous with mixed salad, tuna and avocado

(7) Take advantage of convenience foods

Convenience foods are often processed, and therefore lumped into the 'avoid' category.  But the reality is that pretty much all foods are processed to some degree, the key is to look for minimal processing and few additives. 'Convenience' foods such as pre-packaged salad leaves, frozen vegetables in microwavable sachets, canned fish and vegetables, and even individual serves of rice or quinoa that can be easily heated can save time, money and mess.

(7) Are you really hungry?

One of the big problems when travelling is that we are often faced with hours and hours of either waiting around or in transit.  As a result we can get bored, and easily pass the time by eating and drinking for something to do.  Find some other activities to pass the time!  Head off armed with ideas to help avoid eating being the main activity.  Think about whether or not you are really hungry or not.  If you are an athlete and you are travelling over one or two days you may not be doing your regular training and most likely won't need to eat as much as you normally would on a training day.  It's great to take a range of snacks in your bag, but it doesn't mean you need to eat them all in the first hour.  Pace yourself and listen to your body.  Same with fluid, you may not need to drink the same volume as usual, although for plane travel you may need to drink extra to allow for the dehydrating effects of the cabin.

(8) Eating out

Of course when you are travelling there will be times when you want to eat out, or grab a take-away meal.  These days we are lucky and, in Australia at least, it is usually not too hard to find a half-decent option when eating at a restaurant or even choosing take-away.  My biggest tip is to just keep it simple.  Stick to basic proteins like meat, chicken or fish with vegetables or salad and not too many heavy sauces or dressings.  Examples include fish and salad, steak with vegetables, Asian-style soups or a chicken and vegetable stir-fry.  Same with carbohydrates, some athletes need more than others and if you are someone who needs lots then choose pastas or dishes served with rice, noodles or cous-cous....just watch the dressings and sauces.   Steer clear of the fried stuff and watch your portions too, it's easy to over-eat when travelling so tune in to your hunger signals.

(9) Food hygiene

Probably one of the most annoying things that can happen to a travelling athlete is gastro.  It is relatively common to have some alterations in bowel motions when travelling, but if you get food poisoning you will soon know about it, and it can ruin any well-planned preparation.  You have put in the hours over months or even years, so the last thing you want is to be suffering on the big day.  You can never totally eliminate the risk, but you can be smart about your food and fluid choices.  Don't eat from roadside food trucks or carts, don't eat food unless it is piping hot, don't eat foods that are meant to be cold if they haven't been in a fridge and don't drink the water, consume ice, swallow water in the shower or when brushing teeth, or eat salads and unpeeled fruit in areas where you are warned not to drink the water.  These are just a few tips, so again, do your research on t your destination to eat well and eat safely.

(10) Enjoy the local hospitality

We have focused a lot on maintaining a relatively normal routine while travelling, but of course it is important to enjoy the local cuisine, especially if you are travelling to a new or different country to your own.  One of the things I love about travelling is the opportunity to experience different tastes, textures and styles of food.  Food experiences are often our best memories of travel.  But perhaps do your experimenting after your event, just in case!  Try to eat at reputable food establishments, and just because locals eat there doesn't mean it is safe for you....what the locals can tolerate can be very different to what you can!  Plan ahead and enjoy the opportunities and fun that travel brings.