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Breakfast of champions? What winners eat to perform their best   Click here to check them out


Breakfast -- Not to Mention Lunch, Dinner and Snacks -- of Champions

Top athletes reveal the foods that feed their success

By Julie Upton

For more from Sports Illustrated Women, check out our November issue, on newsstands now.

Because athletes are more likely to think of food as fuel than, say, pastry chefs, we polled a couple dozen to find out what they eat to help them perform at their peak. Their answers led to an important discovery: The best of the best -- including soccer players, skiers and climbers -- don't subsist on supplements or megafortified grub engineered in a secret underground laboratory. They eat steak and eggs. (O.K., and a bit of pasta.) Here are their nine favorites.

Surprised? Don't be. You can get your protein in a relatively lean package by sticking to cuts that have round or loin in their name: eye round, top round, sirloin, tenderloin. Along with approximately 30 grams of protein, a 3.5-ounce lean steak provides three milligrams of very absorbable heme iron, or 5% of the daily requirement. Steak also contains B vitamins, magnesium, selenium and zinc. Organic, grass-fed meat from producers like Slanker's and Grassland Beef have less saturated fat, more vitamin E and more omega-3 fatty acids than beef that comes from grain- or corn-fed cattle.
On the menu: "I make burgers using the leanest ground beef I can find," says extreme skier Kristen Ulmer. "For seasoning I add a package of dehydrated onion-soup mix to the meat."

Carbo-loading is still the classic way to get energy before a race. Nearly 84% of pasta's calories are derived from complex carbohydrates, and another 15% come from protein. Pasta also contains iron and B vitamins (needed to convert food to energy). Boost nutrient levels by eating pasta made with whole grains or soy flour, or flavored with vegetables like spinach and tomato..
On the menu: "I like linguini tossed with fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella," says WUSA Atlanta Beat forward Cindy Parlow. Olympic freestyle mogul skier Hannah Hardaway's pasta salad includes peppers and olives.

Canned tuna
It sounds decidedly less glamorous than a seared bonito steak, but tinned tuna is a fast, low-fat way to get one quarter of your daily protein requirement. A two-ounce serving of tuna packed in water (half a standard can) has 15 grams of protein, only 1 gram of fat and a mere 70 calories. Tuna is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease, strengthen bones and control inflammation (to speed muscle recovery).
  John H. Williams/AP
On the menu: "For tuna sandwiches I mix canned tuna with three tablespoons of plain yogurt," says Candice Cable, a six-time Boston Marathon wheelchair champion. "Then I add chopped basil and about a quarter cup each of diced tomato, onion and red bell pepper."

Named as the top must-eat among the athletes we polled, bananas are an instant source of fast-acting simple carbohydrates -- 28 grams per fruit. One banana supplies more than 10% of the recommended daily intake of potassium (an electrolyte lost in sweat that helps regulate blood chemistry), as well as magnesium, phosphorus and vitamins A and C. The simple sugars and low levels of fiber make bananas especially easy to digest.
On the menu: "To make a smoothie, I take a banana and a little salt and blend them with 16 ounces of water," says adventure racer Marci Hansen, who competed as part of Team PETA at the Eco-Challenge 2002 Fiji in October.

Soy foods
A half cup of firm tofu -- a.k.a. soybean curd -- contains 10 grams of protein, 204 milligrams of calcium and 222 milligrams of potassium, plus iron, vitamin A, magnesium and folate. Soy isoflavones help prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol, and there is some evidence that soy helps maintain bone mass in women.
On the menu: If you don't like the bean taste of tofu, you might prefer soy nuts, soy milk, soy-based meat substitutes or miso soup. Adventure racer Hansen stir-fries tofu with vegetables.

Peanut butter
Peanut butter is a fantastic source of healthy monounsaturated fat and -- yes -- calories. But it contains a modest amount of protein (31/2 grams per tablespoon) and is loaded with vitamin E, magnesium, B vitamins and unsaturated fats like oleic acid, which benefits the cardiovascular system. Look for all-natural brands, or grind your own at health-food stores to avoid added sugar and artery-clogging hydrogenated oils.
On the menu: Telemark skier Naheed Ahmed Henderson makes peanut-sesame noodles with a sauce of two tablespoons of peanut butter, two tablespoons of sesame oil, a teaspoon of soy sauce and a pinch of dried red pepper flakes. "I toss the sauce with cold-rinsed, al dente spaghetti," she says. "You can add chopped ginger and garlic, too."

Yogurt is one of the richest sources of calcium, providing 400 milligrams of the bone-building nutrient -- 40% of your recommended daily intake -- in an eight-ounce container (100 milligrams more than the same eight ounces of milk). Yogurt also delivers potassium, magnesium, B vitamins and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which stimulates the breakdown of fat. When made with live cultures, it contains beneficial bacteria that inhabit your gastrointestinal tract, stimulating the immune system and preventing infection and food-borne illness.
On the menu: Skier Hardaway makes yogurt popsicles: "I put nonfat vanilla or strawberry yogurt into popsicle molds and freeze them."

Dark leafy greens
Spinach, kale and bok choy all contain potent antioxidants that reduce free-radical damage caused by intense exercise. Free radicals, which need oxygen to form, harm healthy cells and can lead to cancer and heart disease. Darker green vegetables also have calcium and folate (which aids concentration and prevents some birth defects) and the antioxidant lutein (which helps maintain healthy eyes.)
On the menu: Climber Steph Davis, who ascended El Capitán and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park this fall, tops her salads with a homemade dressing of two tablespoons balsamic vinegar mixed with one teaspoon of brewer's yeast. "The yeast is a rich source of B vitamins and minerals like chromium and magnesium," she says.

A large egg provides six grams of highly digestible protein -- comprising all nine amino acids. An egg also contains 13 other vitamins and minerals -- in just 70 calories. If you're only after protein, eat the whites; but for a full dose of an egg's nutrients, eat the yolks too. Yolks are one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D (needed to help absorb calcium). There's no nutritional difference between brown and white eggs, but it does pay to look for brands that are enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids or vitamin E.
On the menu: "I'll eat one or two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast," says climber Davis. "On a rest day I may make an omelet with chopped tomatoes and green peppers."

For more from our Fuel section -- including great recipes and more top foods for athletes -- check out Sports Illustrated Women's November issue, on newsstands now.