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.

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

Beliefnet: 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.

Beliefnet: 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.

Beliefnet: 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.

Beliefnet: 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.

Beliefnet: 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.

Beliefnet: 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.

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