It goes without saying, but a high level gymnast has extremely high energy needs with greater amounts of vitamins/minerals/antioxidants needed than the non-athlete due to this wear and tear from high levels of training (optional level gymnasts and above).
Many gymnasts are missing out on some key nutrients in their diets due to lack of variety or restriction, especially for those with food allergy, intolerance, or eating disorder. In a world where everyday this or that food is on the “bad” list, it’s no wonder that gymnasts and parents alike are confused as to “what to eat”.
The following list of foods the gymnasts should eat is not comprehensive. I believe all foods fit in the gymnast’s diet, but I wanted to highlight some nutrition powerhouses. Make sure you read until the end as I discuss some foods to include in the gymnast’s diet that may surprise you!
- Colorful vegetables
- Fibrous Fruit
- High quality protein
- Fun foods
I’d say that 99% of the gymnasts I work with are NOT getting enough calcium nor vitamin D in their diets. For some reason drinking milk becomes “uncool” sometime after elementary school, which leaves cheese and yogurt as the major sources of calcium for our gymnast’s diets.
There is a lot of fear and misinformation around dairy products these days which has prompted the explosion of the plant-based milk industry. The issue with these plant-milk alternatives is they are much lower quality that a real cow’s milk in terms of protein, nutrients, etc AND not all of them are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and other important nutrients.
If your gymnast has a lactose intolerance, she more than likely can tolerate limited amounts of yogurt (about ½ cup) in on sitting or have no issue. You can also go with a lactose free milk to still get the calcium and high-quality protein.
If your gymnast has a true milk allergy, then go with a fortified plant milk like a coconut, almond, or pea. These plant milks are often fortified with protein (pea protein) which is a very “low quality” protein and not very available for the body to use. About 50-80% of these proteins are absorbed versus 100% for animal proteins.
As for the kind of yogurt, I love a great Greek yogurt with some fat in it. Research shows that females who drink or eat nonfat milk products have higher rates of fertility, and a lot of gymnasts are needed the extra calories from full fat products to meet their high energy demands. A 2% milkfat or higher product is a good choice.
As for the sugar in yogurt, this isn’t something to freak out about. I do like some of the lower sugar added yogurts like Chobani Less Sugar, Islandic Skyr, or the Fage with the fruit separate from the yogurt so you can sweeten to taste. This added sugar is still carbohydrate which contributes to your gymnast’s overall fueling, so not something to stress about.
It goes without say, I love cheese. There are so many kinds of cheeses that can be includes in all sorts of meals and snacks. Cheese is another valuable source of calcium and high-quality protein for the gymnast. Some of my conventional favorites: American (yes, it is ok to enjoy “processed” cheese), mozzarella, Havarti, Muenster, parmesan, Cheddar. Other more interesting favorites: Gruyere, Brie, Gouda.
A gymnast should aim for 4-5 servings of dairy products per day to meet calcium needs.
Yes, grains are safe for the gymnast (or anyone). It has been quite the trend the past few years to eliminate all grains in our diets (and even our pets).
A lot of the fear mongering stemmed from the paleo community and physicians who push their pseudoscience quackery. Don’t worry, I fell for all of this too while in college and when I was diagnosed with a hormonal condition. I removed grains and all sorts of other things from my diet and it only made me sicker and struggle more with food and my body.
For the healthy gymnast who doesn’t have celiac disease or a serious autoimmune disease, all grains are fine. Yes, it’s helpful to aim for at least half of the grains as “whole grains” which will provide a lot more nutrition than refined, highly processed grains.
For the gymnast with an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, there is some literature to support limiting or restricting wheat from the diet, but this isn’t something I’d recommend off the bat and is highly individualized.
Whole grains like wheat, barley, rice, oats, etc are great sources of nutrients like iron, B vitamins, magnesium, and selenium which are involved in recovery and growth.
Nuts are another great source of healthy fats, fiber, some protein, magnesium, and vitamin E. Some of the most nutrient dense are almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, brazil nuts just to name a few. These can be added to yogurt, smoothies, salad, cereal, or ground into a nut butter. Don’t worry, peanut butter is also a fine choice though technically peanuts are a legume (bean). Again, this is another food where it is OK if it is “more processed” or even has some added sugar to make it taste better. Yes, w should aim for less added sugars in out diets, but when 2 tbsp of nut butter has 3-4 g of sugar added (less than a teaspoon), I’m just not going to get up in arms about this especially if this is the only way your gymnast will eat the food.
5. Colorful Vegetables
All vegetables are “good” vegetables. Aim for a variety of color throughout the week, like reds, oranges, yellow, greens, and purple. I love my gymnasts to get veggies in at least during two meals a day (usually lunch and dinner). If your gymnast does not like salad, consider how it’s being served. There is a big difference between a bowl of greens with cherry tomatoes and some carrot slivers versus a chopped salad with fruit, nuts, cheese, and a fun dressing! Find dips and dressings that make the veggies taste good. Sauté or roast your veggies in olive oil or add some butter when finished cooking. Gymnasts and parents often feel like their veggies must be raw or steamed to be “healthy”, but this just isn’t true. Finding ways to make vegies taste good is key to keeping them in the gymnast’s diet.
6. Fibrous Fruits
All fruits are “good fruits”. There’s some weird nutrition information out there with things like “bananas are too high in sugar” or “only eat low glycemic fruits”. The glycemic index is bunk because we eat food as part of “mixed meals” most of the time which is going to lower any carbohydrate’s glycemic excursion due to the presence of fat, fiber, and protein. Yes, fiber is an important part of anyone’s diet, but you can also enjoy lower fiber fruits like oranges, grapes, etc.
To put things in perspective, 1 cup of raspberries has 9 g fiber, an apple has about 3g fiber, and a banana has 2.6 -3 g of fiber.
The goal is to get in a variety of fruit and veggies throughout the day and be mindful to get fiber these plus grains or starches.
It’s important to note that some gymnasts get way too much fiber in their diets when they’re trying to “eat clean” and this can create all sorts of gastrointestinal discomfort and bloating. More is not always better.
7. High quality proteins
I’ve written about protein a lot for the gymnast, and high quality include all animal sources (chicken, egg, fish, beef, pork, dairy) and soy. Gymnasts need “3-5 protein feedings” per day which would be 3 meals and 2 snacks. You can be plant-based and still eat animal protein. If your gymnast is vegan, you need to read more here to know how to combine proteins and make sure you’re not missing out on key nutrients that would compromise recovery, growth, and development.
Just having salmon once or twice a week is unlikely to meet the omega 3 needs of a gymnast, so it may be prudent to include this as a supplement in your gymnast’s diet. The amount need will vary based on your gymnast’s gender, age, and weight. As always, a friendly reminder that supplements are not regulated like prescription medications, so you need to be careful. For NCAA athletes, you must have supplements that are third-party verified as otherwise you risk losing eligibility due to a positive drug screen if the supplement was somehow tainted.
Starches like potatoes, squash, and beans are valuable carbohydrate sources to include in the gymnast’s diet. The “white potatoes are bad” sentiment is silly as they have just as many nutrients as a sweet potatoes, just different proportions. Please, keep things interesting and include both in the gymnast’s diet. I also love squashes like butternut, zucchini, etc though these are lower in carbohydrate so be sure to include other carbohydrate sources in your gymnast’s meals to ensure adequate fueling.
Beans are technically legumes, but they have some great carbohydrate and fiber in them.
10. Fun Foods
“Fun Foods” are those that society typically labels as “junk food”, “bad food”, and “empty calories”.
There are no “bad foods”, there are just foods that happen to be less nutrient dense (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants).
It is so important for your gymnast to develop a healthy relationship with food and her body and over-restricting the “fun foods” will only lead to deprivation, guilt, shame, and likely compensatory behaviors (over-eating).
How often you serve these foods is up to you and your gymnast, but I love to enjoy them every day. You see, when no foods are off limits, you don’t feel “obsessed” or crazy with certain foods. This is why I don’t support cheat meals, etc as it only makes you mor obsessed with foods you may not even like that much (but they’re forbidden, so there’s the luster).
There is nothing wrong with enjoying cookies, chocolate, candy, sugary cereal, etc. When no food is off limits, your gymnast can listen to her body and enjoy how all foods without guilt, shame, or anxiety.
More Resources for Fueling the Gymnast
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