Spaghetti Outscores Steak in the Diet of Champions, Says Sports Nutritionist Marilyn Peterson

updated 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even more than most people, it seems, big-time athletes truly believe that you are what you eat. Why else the ritual of the training table groaning under mounds of steaks and fried potatoes? The idea, of course, is to load up on protein for strength and stamina. And if all that red-meat intake sharpens a player's competitive ferocity, what could be the harm in that?

Well, for one thing, fatty foods are not the easiest to digest, as nutritionist Marilyn Shope Peterson points out. And in times of tension and anxiety, just before an important game or match, athletes' stomachs tend to be jittery. The result, to put it delicately, may be an epidemic of gastric upsets.

Part owner of the Sports Medicine Clinic in Seattle, Peterson, 45, is doing her best to see to it that America's top jocks avoid such unsettling occurrences. She has recently published The Athlete's Cookbook (Smuggler's Cove Publishing, $8.95), a compendium of advice, charts and menus for active types, whether of the major league or weekend variety. Co-authored by nutritionist Charlene Martinsen of the University of Washington, the book is spiced with a sampling of culinary favorites from big-name athletes in several sports (see page 59).

"I like to go after the myths," says Peterson, who receives inquiries from many athletes seeking special foods they hope will give them a competitive edge. "I was amused to hear the Soviet bloc Olympic stars touting their new 'magic diet' before last year's Winter Olympics. It was just the carbohydrate loading that we all do now." Such loading, she explains, takes place when an athlete depletes the stored carbohydrates—or glycogen—in his muscles and then "refuels" to maximum capacity with a high-carbohydrate diet. Marathoners, for example, often stoke up on spaghetti before races, though Peterson says medical experts advise that this process should be carefully planned and supervised.

Far from advocating faddish nutritional strategies, Peterson delivers a strong pitch for sensible, balanced diets. Though caloric requirements vary from sport to sport, any kind of extra exertion feeds appetites. "Proteins are important, but carbohydrates—vegetables, fruit, milk, bread or pasta—are the best fuels for performance," she says.

At 5'4", Peterson weighs a trim 110 pounds, virtually the same as in her cheerleading days at the University of Montana in her hometown of Missoula. There she met her husband, Keith, then at Montana on a football scholarship and now an osteopath specializing in sports medicine. The Petersons settled in Seattle, where Marilyn earned a master's in nutrition at the University of Washington and has long been active as a consultant to sports clubs and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Whatever her professional training, much of Marilyn's expertise was acquired right at home. "I feed jocks; I have my own lab with four kids," she explains with a laugh. Jon, 19, is on the Huskies' freshmen crew; Erik, 17, and Chris, 15, are both high school soccer players, and Julie, 12, is into baseball, basketball and dancing. None of them indulges in heavy, greasy pre-game meals, and all leave themselves at least three hours for proper digestion. If nothing else, they have learned from their mother that it's harder to be a winner with heartburn.

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