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Natalie_SnackPack_75.jpgWith spring just around the corner, it’s time to get excited about fresh, seasonal food, and how our diets affect our health, mood, and routines.  I was lucky enough to chat with Natalie Coughlin–the swimmer who won a gold, 2 silvers, and 3 bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics–about how healthy eating drives both her physical performance and emotional well-being.

Natalie is a paidspokesperson for the California Dried Plum Board (click here for a healthy dried plum-y breakfast recipe she developed).

Read on for tips on creating an “emergency snack packet,” how to stay inspired after achieving a dream, and more.

FL: Do you feel it’s how you eat as much as what you eat that’s
part of a healthy eating lifestyle? Where you are, who you’re with, what time it is – how important are
those things
?

NC: Not only is it really important to have 3 good
meals throughout the day–breakfast, lunch, and dinner–but also having snacks
that keep your metabolism going, that keep your blood sugar going. I always have a little emergency packet
in my workout bag, or in my purse, or in my carry-on when I’m traveling, that
includes California dried plums, nuts or trail mix, herbal teas. That way, if you are in-between your
good meals, you have something to fall back on, instead of the vending machine
or whatever is in the airport.
I also find it really important to make that you’re eating
with another person, or eating among other people. They’ve shown in so many
studies that if you eat by yourself, you’re likely to eat more unhealthy [foods]
and you’re also likely to eat a lot more because you’re just not as mindful.

FL: What is your opinion of coffee and caffeine? Are they allowed in your world?

NC: Yes, very much so. I love my coffee. I don’t drink gallons
of it a day by any means, but I definitely have my coffee in the morning. I
start my mornings very, very early–I wake up about 4:45 or 4:30. I’m going to
the pool by about 5:15, so I’m enjoying my cup of coffee then. Then as I’m stretching and warming up
in the pool, I’m also enjoying my coffee. It’s kind of my ritual in my daily
practice. The same thing applies for when I’m at a swim meet. It fits in. You definitely don’t have to worry
about it being dehydrating or anything because honestly, it’s not
dehydrating. But you have to
realize that you can’t drink it like it’s water.

FL: As an Olympian, you must see food as fuel. How do you take that approach but still
get pleasure from food?

NC: On so many levels I focus on healthy eating and how it fuels
my body. The first being that I’m an Olympic athlete who has to be drug tested
constantly. Because the supplement
industry is not regulated–you really have no idea what’s going into those
multi-vitamins and pills and potions–they could be tainted with a substance
that’s illegal, so I never take any supplements. But I make sure I’m getting the proper nutrition from the
foods that I eat. That includes
lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of whole grains, really
lean meats. Just having a variety in your diet is really important. I find cooking not only to be good for
me physically, but it’s one of those things that after a long day of training–I
train for 6 hours a day–coming home and cooking a really good meal is so
comforting to me, it’s really therapeutic.

FL: What is your favorite mood-boosting food, if you need to
cheer up or pep up?

NC: It’s hard to say. I’m fortunate enough to have a garden, so
I grow tons of different vegetables and herbs. It’s really just what looks the best that day, what looks
the freshest and what’s growing the best. So right now it’s different lettuces or dark greens, but in the summer
it might be a really ripe tomato. Whatever’s fresh.

FL: Do you ever cheat, or feel food guilt?

NC: I don’t really feel food guilt. I don’t see it as cheating
because I don’t ever tell myself I can’t have butter or chocolate. I don’t ever
say that to myself. I just realize that you have to keep portions in mind, and
you have to keep the attitude of moderation. But if you really want a hamburger, or if you really want
that comfort food, whatever it is, you can have it. Just realize that can’t be your dinner every single night,
or you might want to have a smaller portion of it. But I don’t really have food guilt. Plus, I’m working out so
much every day. It’ll probably
come on later when being a professional athlete isn’t my job.

FL: You achieved so much in Beijing. After a pinnacle achievement
like that, how do you stay inspired?

NC: It’s really hard. I haven’t competed since Beijing, so it’s been 18 months. Taking the time away from the pool was
necessary for me because I was very happy with my 6 medals I got in Beijing.
But was I satisfied? No. I look back on those races and realize that I could
have improved in certain areas, and I know I could do better. But just knowing that the perfect race
doesn’t really exist, that keeps me motivated. And honestly, just being a
professional athlete–getting paid to train every day, to work my body, to be
outside, to travel around the world, to represent my country–I realize how
fortunate I am, and that keeps me going.

(image via: http://tummywise.com/)

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