Gymnast Feeling Fat

As a gymnastics parent (or any parent for that matter) you have a very important role in “feeding”. I know that term sounds funny, but that’s literally what you do. You feed, bathe, care for, look out for, etc your gymnast.

Part of helping your gymnast feel confident in her body is helping her to grow normally and consistently along her own growth curve. Children are excellent at self-regulating and by providing appropriate structure, boundaries, and food offerings you child can decide the “how much” at each meal or snack. The other ways include how you talk about food and bodies, what you provide for your gymnast to wear, and the perspective you help her to have about her athletic body. 

1. Provide a healthful variety of foods

Younger gymnasts will need 3 meals and 1-2 snacks a day even though they’re probably only in the gym 2-4 days a week for 1-3 hours at a time. Those on team and practicing at least 3 hrs multiple times a week will need a pre-workout and small mid-workout snack. If your gymnast is just in classes or a recreational program that practices less than 2 hrs, she’ll likely end up having a mid-AM or mid-afternoon snack close to practice which can serve as her pre-workout snack. Water is sufficient for a lower level practice that is 1-2 hours in length.

Older gymnasts or competitive gymnasts practicing 3 or more hours at a time and likely 4-6 days a week will need 3 meals, 2-3 snacks, and their performance nutrition (Pre, intra, post-workout) to ensure optimal fueling and support for normal growth.

Your gymnast doesn’t buy her food. She isn’t in charge of meal planning (though I encourage all parents to get their kids in the kitchen from an early age to help expose them to a variety of foods, cooking, etc). If you go out to eat for every meal, stop by fast food each night on the way home from gym, and keep mostly refined processed snacks and sugary beverages in the home, she does not have a very good chance of eating within her energy needs. By default, fast food and restaurant meals are inherently high in fat, salt, and calories as well as sugary drinks and overly-processed snacks (chips, cookies, fruit gummies, etc). Your goal is at least 2 veggie offerings a day, protein at each meal, dairy 3-4 times a day (to meet calcium needs), and high fiber carbs/fruit/veggies to help with fullness and provide the essential nutrients your gymnast needs for growth and recovery.

As her parent, you need to ensure the right mix of foods are offered at all meals and snacks. You need to serve most food groups at meals (protein, carb, fat, fruits/veg, dairy) and 2-3 groups at a snack (protein/fat + carb).  And, you need to serve meals and snacks at appropriate times. If you’re not sure what this balance looks like, grab my free 5-day meal guide. Obviously the portions in this guide may not be appropriate for your gymnast, but you’ll get the idea of variety to offer with the foods at meals and snacks.

It’s really important to make sure your home has “enough” food. Food insecurity can cause feelings of scarcity and lead to overeating, and this isn’t just a socioeconomic issue. Families who aren’t great in the kitchen and rely on a lot of fast food will often struggle with this aspect of “food insecurity” where you end up spending more and eating more on eating out, partially due to “last chance” eating. Keeping enough food in the house helps to provide a sense of safety and calmness which is important for everyone to regulate their eating. When you know there is enough food and snacks are available, there’s no need to “eat all the food”.

Another part of your job as a parent is providing the “what” of food which also includes the “fun foods”. Most parents who tell me their gymnast is “obsessed” with sugar or “eats too much sugar” are over-restricting these foods which puts them on a pedestal. We all want what we can’t have, and as soon as you tell a child (or adult) they can’t have X food, that’s all they can think about.

I’m not saying you should serve dessert every day (a fun food), but 1-2 normal servings of fun foods per day is very appropriate.

What are fun foods? These are the fried things, the chips, sugary cereals, cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, chocolate, highly refined carbohydrates/starches (think Wonderbread, etc).

By offering these foods in a frequent fashion, your gymnast will learn that they are not “off limits” and thus there is no need to “eat all the food” due to FOMO and scarcity.

Scarcity is so powerful. Think about what just happened with the ‘rona. Eveyrone thought they’d run out of toilet paper (even though COVID is a respiratory virus with minimal gastrointestinal involvement). For weeks you couldn’t find toilet paper at the stores because people were hoarding it out of fear.

The same feelings can happen to us and our gymnasts with food. When you don’t allow them to have sugar or put a lot of “conditions” on these foods (making it a HUGE deal, aka calling it “junk food” or “cheat foods”, etc), they are primed to overeat them when they finally get the chance. Or, they’ll start sneaking these foods when you’re not looking, especially at friend’s houses or school.

I know it may sound scary to purposefully include the “fun foods”, but trust me, it works. Give it at least 1-2 months before you just decide your gymnast is “hooked on” or “obsessed” with sugar. I bet when she’s fully allowed to have these items, they’ll lose some of the luster. This doesn’t mean she won’t like cookies anymore, but she won’t need to have them in excessive quantities.

2. Don’t compare her to siblings or other gymnasts on the team

Oh man, nothing makes my blood boil more than when I hear gym parents commenting about other gymnasts bodies in comparison to their gymnast’s. First off, not your place. Secondly, you have NO idea what someone is going through based on their body. The gymnast who’s recently “slimmed down” and “looks so good” could easily be in the throws of a deadly eating disorder. Likewise, the gymnast who came back a little heavier after the COVID-quarantine could be struggling with emotional eating, anxiety, etc OR she may just have a bigger body which is 100% fine. Our view of the gymnast body is so warped due to many of them being stunted with delayed puberty due to years of chronic malnutrition i.e. underfueling (RED-S).

Also, don’t compare your gymnast to her siblings. Her body is going to be different as a gymnast. She has a lot of muscle due to the incredible demands of the sport which provides a very different body composition than a sibling that isn’t as athletic. Undoubtedly, your gymnast looks more like one of her parents than the other, and often one parent has a bigger build than the other. She didn’t get to choose her body type nor did you, so no need to compare something that isn’t her control.

3. Buy appropriate fitting clothes, leotards and don’t make a big deal about sizes

The last thing your gymnast needs to hear is you griping about having to buy her a new leotard that she grew out of. Yeah, I know that your gym’s competition leotard may be >$500, but it is what it is. Gymnasts grow, and this is normal.

Gymnasts are expected to grow and gain just like normal children and teens. They all grow at different rates, children grow “out” before they grow “up”; teens grow “up” before they grouw “out”. Don’t buy your gymnast this crazy expensive posh wardrobe at 14-15 years old as their body may not be finished growing. She doesn’t need the added pressure of “I’ve got to still fit into these clothes” when she can’t control how her body changes with puberty.

It’s really important to buy clothes that FIT. We all have a “range” of clothing sizes in our closets, and this is normal due to variance in manufacturing practices as well as normal fluctuations in our bodies with different life seasons, times of the year, etc.

Buying clothing that fits your gymnasts “now” body is a huge step in making her feel better about herself and the current situation, whether she’s going through puberty, recovering from an injury or eating disorder, or just growing. 

There is nothing productive about keeping clothing that  aren’t going to fit anytime soon. “Goal” clothing is unhelpful and just reinforces inadequacy. 

4. Remind your gymnast of all the amazing things her body can do

Gymnasts get upset about bigger quads, shoulders, etc and clothing not fitting them correctly

On the same topic, you play an important role in your gymnast’s life as “dressing room therapist”. She needs ot understand that clothing sizes are not universal, so she cannot expect to where the same sizes between brands or even within the same brand. She also needs to understand that as a gymnast, she will naturally have a different body composition and type than her siblings or friends who are not high level athletes. This means that she may have a hard time jean shopping (tight thighs/hips, loose waist thanks to thousands of squat landings each day; tight arms and shoulders due to the incredible strength it takes to hold yourself up on the uneven bars, etc).

Clothing sizes need to be a non-issue. They are what they are, they’re minimal industry standardization, and they have nothing to do with your gymnast’s worth.

One last thought. When your gymnast says “I’m fat”, this is often symbolic of something else going on in her world. One of the most powerful things I was ever taught was to evaluate what feelings were underneath the “I’m fat” statement. Often we can replace “I’m fat” with “I’m stress, anxious, lonely, feel inadequate, etc.” As a parent, it’s important to affirm your gymnast, but not directly about her body. Don’t comment on her weight or body, even if you feel like it’s a positive statement. Affirming her for working hard, for being intelligent/kind/etc are all better ways to affirm and praise than body-based comments.

Also, remember, your gymnast is always watching you (coach, parent, etc). The way you talk about and treat your own body is very formative to her, so do your best to model positive behaviors. You may be a grown adult and parent, but you are not undeserving of help (nutrition, therapy, etc) if you yourself are struggling with your food and body relationship. Taking care of your mental and physical health is one of the best things your gymnast can watch you do.

In summary

I hope this is helpful. My mom got some of the things right when I was a high level gymnast, but others she just wasn’t privy to as these issues aren’t talked about often enough. I’d love to hear from you if you have comments or questions.