Gymnast parents often get frustrated that their gymnast won’t eat the “healthy foods”. Aka, the foods they think their athlete should eat for optimal health and performance.  

They often report their gymnasts eating “too much sugar” or “only wanting junk food”. More often than not, this is a result of parents making 3 crucial mistakes around food and feeding that backfire.  

The reality is that 50% of families feel like this.  

Here are the 3 reasons why your gymnast won’t eat “healthy foods”.

1. Too Much Pressure

If you nag long enough, some gymnasts will go ahead and eat whatever healthy food you’re trying to get them to eat…broccoli, cauliflower, whole wheat something, etc. But here’s the kicker: they’re likely not going to readily eat those things on their own when you’re not around. This may not be a big deal while they’re growing up, but you want to raise a healthy adult who will eat their veggies on their own in college and beyond.  

But for some gymnasts, the more you push, the more they push-back when it comes to food.  

Often times food refusal is a direct response to too much pressure.  

  • Trying to get your children to eat more foods often results in less. 
  • Trying to get your children to eat less food often results in more. 
  • Trying to get your children to eat certain foods often results in them refusing them entirely.  

The key here is to not interfere. You do your job as the parent, providing the food and setting the schedule. It’s your child’s job to decide whether they will eat and “how much”. This is really difficult for a lot of parents to grasp because it feels negligent. It feels like “doing nothing”, which they’re afraid will result in children who don’t learn to like healthy foods.  

The issue with pressure at mealtimes is it can heighten anxiety about food and decrease appetite. Think about it…if someone was forcing you to eat a certain food that totally grossed you out, you would feel all the emotions: worry, anxiety, fear, etc.   

Instead, we want to help children learn to enjoy and explore food.

2. Your Food is Too Healthy

Is your home food environment “too healthy”? I know that sounds crazy, but… 

Hear me out.  

We all want what we can’t have. When you over-restrict the sweets & treats or what I call the “fun foods” (chips, cookies, candy, French fries, etc)…this creates obsession.  

These foods are always going to be a part of our culture. Food is not just fuel, it’s social, emotional, and cultural. We want to raise children who can be comfortable around all foods and not overeat just because of the “fear of missing out”.  

We’ve all seen it, or maybe experienced this…the kid at the birthday party who eats 5 cupcakes. You may judge, but if you’ve ever been on a diet or sworn off certain foods, you can identify. Or, maybe you’ve told your teen gymnast she’s not allowed to have sugar during the week or one gym days…and then you find hidden candy wrappers in her bedroom, backpack, or car.  

Food sneaking, overeating, and binging all occur in response to restriction, deprivation, and feelings of guilt/shame. You plan to have “just one”. But then somehow find yourself having already eaten way too much of a certain food. This is what we call the “last supper effect” or “what the heck” eating. It is something we want to learn not to engage in, which happens through permission and adequate food.  

I’ve worked with a lot of high-level and elite gymnasts who struggle with food. They’ve been told they must “eat clean” to stay lean, which is not physiologically true and often leads to underfueling and an unhealthy relationship with food. In addition, many of their foods struggles are often a result of the home food environment. They have been restricted from an early age in an effort to “keep them healthy”. The real “elephant in the room” here is the parental fear about their gymnast gaining weight and her body not being “good enough” for gymnastics. The reality is that teen gymnasts will continue to grow and gain weight as this is a necessary aspect of physiological development and is crucial to longevity in the sport.  

Many people believe that carbohydrates and sugar are inherently “fattening”, which is not physiologically true. So, a lot of parents over-restrict their gymnast’s diet in an effort to keep them “slim”. Which only backfires and can lead to more weight gain than biologically normal.  

Their parents think they are helping them by restricting sugar, “junk food”, etc, but it only leads to more wanting and often food sneaking.  

If this is going on with your gymnast, there is nothing “wrong” with her; she’s just over-restricted. The only way to fix this issue is to give unconditional permission for all foods and make sure she’s getting enough to eat so that she’s not hungry.   

3. You’re Stopping Too Soon

The last mistake gymnast parents often make is giving up on certain foods. When a child is about 2-6 years old, neophobia, “fear of new things”, often sets in. This translates to a lot of their little lives, but especially food. This is why a lot of toddlers stop eating all the wonderful things parents taught them to like, often things like vegetables, fruit, etc.  

Taste buds will continue to evolve and with a “matter of fact” feeding approach like the Division of Responsibility, children can learn to like new (and old) foods. But, it often takes 15-20+ exposures to a food to even consider “liking”; and most parents just don’t get that far. They’re tired of the whining, food refusal, food waste, etc, so they just don’t serve certain foods anymore.  

Unfortunately, many parents decide that their child just “doesn’t like” certain foods and doesn’t serve them again. Exposure is the key to providing an environment where a child can learn to like new foods.

A Better Approach To Mealtime Success For The Gymnast

Sticking to your role as the parent in feeding is so important. Your job is to choose the “what and when”, and your child gets to decide “whether” and “how much”. This framework is considered “responsive feeding” and outlined by Ellyn Satter, an incredible pediatric dietitian, feeding expert, and therapist. This framework means that you may have to tolerate serving them broccoli 20+ times all for it to just sit on their plate. But one day, they may get curious in a no-pressure environment and decide to try the broccoli.  

We want to raise healthy, happy gymnasts who are comfortable around all foods and can listen to their bodies.  

If you’re struggling with your gymnast and want support, we invite you to our online course for parents of gymnasts –  The Balanced Gymnast Method® Course. This will teach you everything you need to know about fueling the gymnast with extra support on growth, picky eating, navigating sugar, tons of meal/snack ideas, and more! Join the waitlist here.