As a former gymnast, I love gymnastics with all my heart, but I developed some really strange behaviors and habits with food + my body during the sport. It took a long time to unlearn these.
Ultimately, these struggles ended my gymnastics career. Your (or your gymnast’s) story doesn’t have to end like that.
Gymnastics is amazing, but it’s temporary.
Gymnastics is also a SUPER CONCENTRATED version of #dietculture, so making positive changes to nutrition and your body is an uphill battle from the start. You will feel out of place, but that doesn’t mean everyone around you is right.
If you’re struggling with food or your body AT ALL, you deserve help. There are some incredible dietitians and therapists who can help you through these struggles and come out stronger. I would not be who I am today without the struggles, but I do wish I got help during the sport until about 6 years after I retired.
Please don’t wait until you get to college gymnastics to work with a nutritionist and sports psych or therapist. Think how much better you could be if you make that investment earlier in your career….
The following are the top 9 things I wish I’d known as a gymnast that would have likely gave my career a much happier ending.
1. Carbs aren’t bad for you. They fuel your life (and workouts)
Carbohydrate are not bad for the gymnast, nor anyone else. As a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator, I know a thing or two about carbohydrate digestion, absorption, and metabolism.
There is no “one food” that causes weight gain or health problems (unless we’re talking about a food allergy, celiac disease, etc).
Sure, carb “quality” matters, but it’s healthy and perfectly fine for the gymnast to eat a wide variety of foods (including those that are less nutrient dense, aka “processed” carbs, white bread, sugar, etc).
Carbohydrates are the “gymnast’s fuel”. The higher the intensity of the sport, the more the body relies upon carbohydrate for energy.
This is where the difference between “eating/snacking” and “fueling” comes in. Sure, a gymnast could eat eggs and avocado only before a 3-4 hour morning workout and not be “hungry”, but she won’t have the energy her body needs to draw upon to support that kind of energy expenditure.
2. No one cares what you weigh
A gymnast’s best weight is what they weigh when they’re growing, developing (including getting a regular period), and performing their best with minimal injury. A gymnast’s weight is a moving target under about 20 years of age while they’re continuing to mature.
There is no correlation in the research between weight, body composition, or performance. The is no “ideal weight” for a gymnast or any calculation that can be used to derive such a silly target.
If you must look at something, track growth charts. This will give you a good idea of “where” a gymnast’s trajectory is for growth, but you also must keep in mind that their weight will always be higher than expected due to high levels of lean mass.
The only time I do asks for gymnast’s weight (and usually a blinded weight from the pediatrician’s office) is in the case of eating disorders, RED-S, or other medical issues at play. It is not uncommon for gymnasts to need to gain weight to support their health and training. Read more about healthy weight gain for the gymnast here.
3. Not eating before gym to feel “slim” is missing the point of training.
A lot of gymnasts don’t eat or drink before practice as they’re worried about body comments or feeling “bloated”. Stomach distension after eating/drinking is something we need to normalize. No one walks around 24/7 with a flat stomach.
Some gymnasts are suffering from undiagnosed GI conditions (IBS, celiac, etc) and these should be worked up and treated by medical professionals (pediatric gastroenterologist, dietitian, pelvic floor physical therapist, therapist).
Avoiding food/fluids to achieve a certain “look” will cost you in terms of performance and longevity in the sport.
4. Bodies change. Wearing the same leo at 16 as you did at 10 is not a “badge of honor”
Gymnasts need to know that growth and weight gain is a normal and healthy part of development. A lot of gymnasts like to revel in the fact that they can wear leotards late in high school that they wore in elementary, essentially saying how they “haven’t grown”. This isn’t something to be proud of. There are individuals that are naturally small, leaner and those that are larger and heavier built. All bodies are good bodies that can do gymnastics.
Buy clothes and leotards that fit your “now” body. You will feel so much better, more confident, etc.
5. Pushing through injuries due to fear only hurts yourself.
So many gymnasts are afraid to speak up about injuries. They’re worried they’ll be doubted, chastised, made fun of, etc. Going to the doctor, physical therapist, dietitian, or therapist is something that needs to be normalized in the sport. Being proactive when things first start to hurt or become a struggle will save so much time and heart ache in the long run.
6. When someone makes a comment about your body, it’s about them and not you.
My policy is #nobodytalk. Telling a gymnast she’s “fat” or “needs to slim down” is unhelpful if not harmful. You cannot control the way some receives a compliment (positive or negative), so best practice is to use non-body related comments like “your gymnastics is really strong today, you’ve been working really hard, etc”.
7. You are not “just a gymnast”. Develop interests and identity outside the sport.
I wished I had taken some time as a gymnast to develop interests outside the sport. It’s easy to suggest that, but the reality is our high-level athletes are so busy. It takes almost all their time eat day to do school, gym, recover, and repeat. But, transitioning to life outside of sport (or even having a more meaningful and enjoyable time during sport) will go so much better when gymnastics is not the only thing their world centers around.
8. Nutrition advice from anyone besides a professional (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) is most likely incorrect and harmful
Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (especially those trained in sport and disordered eating) are board certified, licensed nutrition experts to help you and your gymnast.
There’s a big difference between a RDN and a “nutritionist”. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and there’s not always much that can be done to stop them.
Unfortunately, a lot of athletes and individuals have been harmed while working with a “nutritionist” who doesn’t have the skills, training, or credentials to be working with them.
Anyone can call themselves a “sports nutritionist”, but do they really know what they’re doing or talking bout? Maybe, maybe not.
Here’s a brief overview of the difference between a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Nutritionist
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
- 4-6+ years of schooling at accredited university (Bachelors, Masters in Nutrition)
- Additional supervised practice (900+ hours) in accredited dietetic internship (like medical residency)
- National board examination to become RDN
- Additional board certifications which require 2+ years of experience as an RDN and 2000+ hours of supervised practice (pediatrics, sports nutrition, eating disorders)
- Extensive coursework completed in organic chemistry, physiology, biochemistry, medical nutrition therapy, pediatric/adolescent nutrition, sports nutrition, etc
- Ongoing supervision and professional mentoring in the field (sports nutrition + eating disorders)
- Practices evidence-based medicine (not just opinion or preference)
- Can legally provide nutrition counseling and prescribe diet intervention + supplements
- *may also be former gymnast, gymnastics coach, personal trainer, etc
- No education required
- Experience as former gymnast, gymnastics coach, personal trainer, strength coach, etc is not a replacement for professional training and supervision (see left)
- Not legally recognized as nutrition expert or expert within medical team (or by insurance companies)
- No oversight/monitoring of practice (safety)
- May provide opinion-based recommendations vs evidence recommendations
- Illegal in some states to call self “nutritionist” as this is a misrepresentation of a registered dietitian nutritionist
9. Disordered eating is really, really serious. If you’re struggling at all, you deserve help.
Read this post for my thoughts on preventing disordered eating.
Prevention is key, but if you find yourself or your gymnast in the thick of disordered eating, they need a team to help them no matter “how sick” they think they are (or aren’t).
Anyone struggling with food and their body deserve help.
For the high level gymnast, eating disorders are a “slippery slope” and should be promptly addressed with a team approach, even before it seems “bad enough”.
Your team should consist of the following at minimum:
-Medical Professional who is familiar with eating disorders (pediatrician, sports medicine physician)
-Dietitian, trained in eating disorders and familiar with sports nutrition
-Therapist, trained in eating disorders and preferably familiar with aesthetic sports (gymnastics, ballet) and high-level athletes.
Additionally, adding a physical therapist who can evaluate and help plan for a safe “Return to Sport” is ideal.
I hope you found this list helpful
We all make mistakes. To err is human. Though I wish I could take back a lot of these mistakes I made, they built character and the foundation for the kind of nutrition professional I am today.
If your gymnast is struggling (to any degree), please reach out for help. It can be daunting to find a team, but just start somewhere.
If you’re wanting to prevent a lot of these struggles, hop on the wait list for The Balanced Gymnast Method™ course for more information!