Back in high school in Placentia, Calif., Olympic swimmer Janet Evans loved eating chocolate cream pie for breakfast. "But now that I'm older, I just can't do that anymore," says Evans, 20, who won three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics and a silver and a gold last week in Barcelona.

Evans's training diet is a prime example of what sports nutritionists advise today's elite athletes to eat: wholesome low-fat foods with ample carbohydrates for fuel, enough protein to build muscle, and water, water everywhere.

"Calories don't matter, it's the grams of fat that count," notes Evans, who says she's seen teammates "get hung up on weight and become emaciated. But I won't fall into that trap. As long as I eat properly, I feel good and can perform well."

On a typical day, Evans eats a bagel or banana before her 5:30 a.m. practice, three or four pancakes with lite syrup for breakfast, a turkey sandwich with no-fat mayonnaise or mustard for lunch and a piece of fruit before afternoon practice. She eats dinner early, about 5:30, and focuses on complex carbohydrates -- pasta, rice, bread and potatoes -- plus salad, steamed vegetables and some chicken, fish or lean beef. Throughout the day, she drinks plenty of water and downs carbohydrate-enhanced sports beverages during competitions to keep her energy level up. Occasional treats include nonfat frozen yogurt or cookies.

"Elite-level athletes understand that food is fuel," says Ann Grandjean, director of the international Center for Sports Nutrition in Omaha and chief nutrition consultant to the United States Olympic Committee. "Good nutrition during all stages of training and competition can make the difference between a disappointing performance and a personal best."

In general, the same basic dietary principles that promote good health for average adults will maximize performance for most athletes, says Grandjean. Nutritionists recommend that about 60 percent of calories come from carbohydrates, 12 to 15 percent come from protein and less than 30 percent come from fat.

"Water is the most important nutrient for the athlete," Grandjean says. "Unreplaced loss of body water can harm athletic performance and, in the extreme, cause death. Losing as little as 2 to 3 percent of your body weight by sweat can cause a decrease in concentration, coordination, strength and stamina." The old rule of drinking eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day is fine for most people but may be insufficient for the very active. "The goal is to never experience thirst," she says. "If you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated."

Carbohydrates are the second most important nutrient for athletes, since they are the most readily available source of energy from food, Grandjean says. The body converts carbohydrate foods into glucose, or blood sugar, the primary source of fuel for the body's cells. Simple carbohydrates, like the fructose in fruits and the sucrose in table sugar, will be in the bloodstream in 15 minutes. Complex carbohydrates, such as potatoes, pasta and grains, can take 30 to 90 minutes. "That's why it's important to eat a varied diet of simple and complex carbohydrates -- and proteins -- to sustain the blood sugar over a longer period of time," Grandjean says.

"Most foods are a combination of different nutrients," notes Kathy Engelbert-Fenton, assistant director of the nutrition clinic at the University of Utah. So if you eat a chocolate bar to get the quick energy from sugar, she says, "you're also getting loads of fat, particularly if it also has nuts." She advises marathon runners, bikers, rowers and other endurance athletes with high caloric requirements to carry along low-fat carbohydrates such as sports beverages, raisins, fig bars, bagels with jam, bananas and hard candies.

Long-distance cyclists, for example, may burn up 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day, notes Omaha's Grandjean. "Trying to eat this much complex carbohydrate would present a problem, which is why many elite athletes get a large proportion of their dietary calories from sweets," she says. "They don't gain weight because they work out relentlessly. So they can have their cake and eat it, too."

Bodyworks appears on alternate Tuesdays.