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On Michael Phelps and the latest Breakfast of Champions

Out of My Head

Posted: August 23, 2008 7:40 p.m.
Updated: October 25, 2008 5:02 a.m.
The Summer Olympics has always made for favorite family viewing at our house.

Seeing the greatest athletes from around the world unite — along with the heartwarming reminder that grassy fields are far better unifiers than battlefields ever will be — definitely makes for spectator excitement and renewed hope for the Family of Man (and Woman).

Speaking of hope, Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals won in Beijing shines as a huge ray of optimism over families everywhere.

And rightly so.

Here’s a fellow who has battled attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since childhood, and his parents divorced when he was only 9. Many people would consider those two strikes enough for any kid going sideways.

Due to poor impulse control (and other condition-related factors), he could have followed a problematic path that many kids with ADHD who don’t get proper professional help tend to pursue — underachieving/failing in school, hanging with the “wrong crowd,” getting into fights, committing crimes, using drugs and/or alcohol, all the while battling low self-esteem, anger and even depression.

Fortunately, such misery wasn’t in the cards for this kid. And my guess is, having a mom who kept him in sports while never giving up on him became Phelps’ greatest tools for triumph.

While being interviewed last week, Phelps confirmed that his mother, Debbie, whom he has lived with since his parents divorced, has always been his most loving and devoted supporter.

In relaying that information, that same lanky lion we had just seen roaring after another golden win became noticeably choked up.

His overjoyed mother cheering in the stands every time her swimming ace swam to glory, the tears and delight shining on her face, exquisitely framed that mutual mother-son devotion.

A legendary athlete who loves his mom: Does it get any better?

As with all wondrous creatures in the universe, we always want to know what makes them tick.
How does a 23-year-old, 6-foot-four-inch, 195-pound human being, one with ADHD no less, win more Olympic medals than anyone in history?

That subject has been quite the topic-du-jour. 

Certainly regular, intense workouts, fierce swimming rituals, and the self-discipline that evolves through dedication to sports factor greatly into those accomplishments.

It also turns out that the “Baltimore Bullet” is a veritable eating machine, taking in up to 12,000 calories per day, about four to five times what the average adult male ingests.

Pizza, omelets, fried egg sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise, pasta with rich sauces, chocolate chip pancakes, French toast, several cups of coffee — they’re all on his daily uber-carb menu.

For someone burning up to 1,000 calories an hour through rigid exercise, such gluttony is acceptable and probably mandatory. My only concern with his diet is what I saw displayed on a major national morning news show last week.

A table was arranged with all the foods Michael eats each day – along with a half dozen cans of energy drinks.

Among those six or so cans I saw that three were “Red Bull,” a caffeinated beverage known for lending a “lift” and temporary concentration boost.

According to reports, the famed swimmer consumes about 1,000 calories per day of such stimulating beverages.

In a society always thirsty for a better “buzz,” I wonder if kids were seeing the same thing and thinking, “If Michael Phelps can do so well drinking those ‘energy’ drinks maybe they’ll help me, too.”

And those with ADHD, are they now going to chug the stuff in hopes of gaining better focus and improving their school performance?

Sure, caffeinated energy drinks can temporarily enhance attention and reaction time. But they can also promote caffeine addiction, anxiety, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and according to some recent Scandinavian studies, may even lead to a stroke in young “caffeine-sensitive” people.

This scenario troubles me.

I brought my worries to registered dietitian Sheri Barke, nutrition education coordinator for College of the Canyons’ Student Health and Wellness Center.

While Barke didn’t see the news show I mentioned, and could not confirm what the energy drinks actually were, she admits to feeling trepidation over the frequent use (and overuse) of these popular, mass-marketed caffeinated beverages.

“Like you, I am very concerned about the stimulant-containing energy drinks out there,” said Barke, who holds a master’s degree in public health.

Such drinks, Barke said, can contain 80 to 250 millegrams of caffeine (upper limit for safe caffeine is considered 300 mg/day, less for sensitive populations).

“I’m more concerned about the other stimulants often combined with caffeine in some of these drinks, i.e., ‘bitter orange’ and other possible dangerous combinations/interactions, such as caffeine plus alcohol,” she cautioned.

As for persons with ADHD using such “energy” drinks, Barke said that is not uncommon. In fact, she said, patients often use very high amounts of caffeine as a way to self-medicate.

“I once had a 20-something female patient with bulimia who was drinking the equivalent of 20 cans of Diet Coke a day, for as long as she can remember. When she was properly diagnosed with the co-morbidity of ADHD and properly treated, her Diet Coke consumption spontaneously decreased for the first time in her life,” Barke said.

In recent years, we’ve seen many athletes stripped of their medals after being busted for steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. While caffeine-laden energy drinks haven’t been banned from the Olympics, perhaps they do represent a sort of “watered down” stimulant doping.

Maybe that added zip can actually make for a few milliseconds of aquatic advantage, something that on Olympic clocks could separate the barracudas from the guppies.

Of course, this is speculation. And I am not trying to minimize Michael Phelps’ outstanding talent, record and character.

But I remain concerned about the potentially adverse message his “energy” drink usage could have upon youth wanting to emulate him, let alone what it may one day do to this respected living legend.

I also wonder if athletes’ faces will eventually be stripped from Wheaties’ boxes and instead printed on Red Bull cans.

Diana Sevanian is a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own opinions, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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