Are carbohydrates “bad” for the gymnast? And by “bad” what most coaches and parents really think is “fattening, inflammatory, addictive”.

These days, the term carbohydrate or “carbs” is practically synonymous with profanity in the gymnastics world. This term has different meanings to individuals whether you are an analytical chemist or a personal trainer. As a reformed carb-o-phobe, I implore you to see both sides of the coin and by the end of this article understand why adequate carbohydrate for fueling the gymnast.

Today, our children and teenagers are faced with increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, and related endocrine disrupting diseases like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). For these specific diseases, the logic goes as such: I ate carbs, got diabetes, so that’s what caused the problem. Eh, not quite.

Many medical professionals will just say “stop eating carbs, white foods, etc” in response to nutrition advice for such conditions OR if a gymnast is wanting to get leaner (or the coach thinks they’re “not lean enough”)— and this advice gets extrapolated to the high-caliber gymnasts which will kill their performance.

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and is typically found as a simple sugar (glucose) or more complex molecule like starch (potato). Carbohydrates are found in vegetables, fruits, grains, starches, and sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, nuts, and yes, even meat (google it).

Often, “food quality” is promoted along with “clean eating” for the athlete, which means only “clean” or minimally processed carbohydrates would be included in the diet like brown rice and sweet potatoes.

The biggest difference between a pop-tart and a sweet potato is not their caloric content, but their fiber and micronutrient content. Processed foods like bread, granola bars, and cereal are not inherently “bad”, but they do contain less micronutrients and fiber than fruits/vegetables, and whole grains unless the products are fortified (vitamins/minerals are added during processing).

In the nutrition world, there’s this propagated notion that a “cleaner” food’s calories are somehow not equivalent to foods that are considered “unclean”, but this is unture.

Calories are calories and given there are discrepancies in food labeling allowed by the USDA, none of us “really” know how many calories are in a given food product. And, we also don’t exactly know how many of those calories our bodies absorb, use during digestion, etc. It is more complicated than “calories in, calories out” since we don’t know all parts of the equation.

Why only eating “clean carbohydrates” doesn’t always work for gymnasts

“Clean eating” is the most popular “diet” in the gymnastics world. This stems from the misunderstanding that somehow foods are inherently “fattening” irrespective of their caloric content.

Do gymnasts need to eat clean? Absolutely not, but hang with me.

Some versions of “cleaner” foods “may” have less calories if there is less sugar/fat added, but that is not always the case.  This fact doesn’t make the food better, it’s just an observation. And, here’s where “clean eating” doesn’t always work. Say you make butternut squash mac and cheese in order to serve something “cleaner”, yet you are then so unsatisfied that you find yourself in front of the fridge or pantry after dinner looking for “more”. You can easily end up eating more than you intended due to this “health halo” effect.

Or, you skip the carbohydrates all together with your salad at lunch and then can’t take you mind off chocolate or chips all afternoon.

I teach my clients that by learning to allow yourself to enjoy all foods, the feelings of “I must eat all of these” will dissipate due to what’s called “habituation“.

So, instead of swearing off sugar forever and then binging on cookies when you finally get something sweet, why don’t you allow yourself a normal serving of cookies several times a week so you never get to that point of “so deprived”. Moderation works.

Also, at the end of the day, or technically “digestion and metabolism”, carbohydrates are broken down into their simplest components—glucose which is used to form ATP or “energy” in the body at the cellular level.

The body doesn’t know if the glucose molecule came from a banana or sports drink. This phenomenon is something I fought for years until I really understood the science of metabolism—specifically glycolysis, glucoenogensis, etc.

Do gymnasts “need” carbohydrates?

The bodies preferred fuel substrate is carbohydrate. The brain alone requires on average 130g of carbohydrate per day just to maintain basic life functions.

For all individuals, I like to propose carbohydrates as a spectrum— from fibrous, mostly water carbs like lettuce to energy-dense carbohydrate like dextrose (found in sports drinks) or plain old sugar. Neither end of the spectrum is “good” or “bad”.

Now, I know that many in the low carb/paleo world will claim “the brain doesn’t *need* carbs”, but here’s the deal:

-If you consume less than about 130g carbohydrate per day, the body will spare some of the endogenous glucose (normally circulating in the bloodstream) to use for the brain before it tries to use the by-products of protein and fat metabolism (ketones) to run on.

-In terms of the research on ketogenic diets and performance, the anerobic sports do not benefit from this kind of diet. The anaerobic sport relies on carbohydrates from the muscle and liver to power the quick-bursts of energy; fat and protein are too slow of a fuel to power this kind of explosive movement.

-Aside from chasing any sort of physiological “benefit” from low carb, you have to keep in mind the potential behavioral ramifications from over-restricting the diet. Whether you’re low carb to help with type 1 diabetes or just choosing this lifestyle because you think it’s healthier, anytime we have restriction there’s often an equal compensatory reaction.

I cannot tell you how many clients I’ve worked with that couldn’t lose weight, get their blood sugar in check, etc while on a low carb diet because of compliance. By “laxing” the diet a bit, i.e. including foods that you enjoy and are satisfying (often carbs), this gets rid of the “all or nothing” which often results in overeating/binging and exceeding nutrition needs.

Carbohydrates are the Gymnast’s Fuel

Believe it or not, there is a place for all kinds of carbohydrate in the gymnasts diet to meet the specific energy demands of the sports.

Gymnastics is a high-intensity sports with short bursts of expenditure followed by rests (often prolonged while waiting for another turn on the bars, etc). From a physiological standpoint, the body is going to use carbohydrate during these explosive movements in the form of glycogen from the muscles and liver.

So, if you show up to practice with in the morning after a dinner of chicken and broccoli and then half a yogurt at breakfast (not naming any names here…), good luck on the second or third rotation of a grueling 4 hour practice. You are not going to perform well if the only source of carbohydrate you had before practice was from green leafy vegetables.

Likewise, a steady diet of french fries, pop tarts, and soda will not provide the necessary vitamins/minerals and antioxidants for optimal health and performance. And if those were the only foods a gymnast ate it’s likely she wouldn’t FEEL good much of the time.

So, what does adequate carbohydrate consumption look like for the female gymnast?

Use the Performance Plate Method.

Start the day with adequate carbohydrate. This could look like oatmeal and fruit (plus eggs or greek yogurt for protein), a sandwich at lunch or baked potato, or a salad with cold rice, pasta, etc. A snack can be included mid-morning and like fruit with nuts to help tide till lunch.

Pre-practice should include starchy carbohydrate like a granola bar or a greek yogurt plus granola. For 1-2 hour practices, water for hydration should be adequate. For practices greater than 2 hours in length, especially for advanced competitive team athletes, intraworkout carbohydrate such as 8 oz of sports drink, two sheets of graham crackers, a handful of pretzels, or 1-2 servings of fruit adequate (1/2 to whole banana, cup of grapes, etc). Immediately post-workout the gymnast could consume 8oz of chocolate milk if it will be a while until dinner, more than 1-2 hours. These are all just examples and not specific to your gymnast; she may need more, less, etc.

Dinner should follow practice and include a source of starchy carbohydrate like rice, pasta, bread, or potato to replenish glycogen stores, especially if the gymnast has another practice the next morning.

To really be specific, a gymnast needs about 5-7 g carbohydrate per kilogram bodyweight per day and 3-5 g/kg if needing to lean out without sacrificing performance. Sure you could count, but using the performance plate will get you there if sticking to reasonable servings of each food according to the activity level of the day.

The beauty of the performance plate is each plate (low, moderate, high intensity) dictates the portions of carbohydrates needed to fuel the activity. On a low intensity or rest day, you don’t need more than ¼ of the plate as carbohydrates along with the other carbs found in the dairy and fruit you may include. This would equate to likely about 45-60 grams of carbohydrate per meal and 10-15g per snack for the young gymnast.

Most gymnasts need the moderate intensity plate for 3-4 hour practices or even the high intensity plate, especially after strenuous workouts or two-a-day practices. It’s essential that the gymnast is refilling the carbohydrates stores, glycogen, in the muscles and liver between practice.

Running on Empty?

A lot of the high-level athletes I work with struggle with breakfast. They don’t want to eat early in the morning, or they get nauseous before practice or competition and thus don’t want to eat or drink.

This is a bad idea for a lot of reasons, but specifically in relation to performance. Even if the athlete had a higher carb recovery meal at dinner the night before, they would likely burn through all the stored carbohydrate within 1 ½ -2 hours of a workout and then are left running on fumes.

When the body uses all the stored carbohydrate, which is very limited in the young athlete’s body, it then has to turn stored fat and precious muscle tissue into a usable fuel source which is a very inefficient process. The last thing we need is the athlete to be burning their own muscle tissue during a workout because they came into the practice under-fueled.

Your brain loves carbohydrate

One of my favorite research studies looked at the used of carbohydrate supplementation during a beam workout for a group of high level gymnasts, equivalent to JO levels 6-10.

On the first day of the study, the gymnasts were only allowed water before the beam workout. The second day of the study, the gymnasts were given a glucose solution similar to a sports drink which is 6-8% carbohydrate. The researchers measured the numbers of balance beam falls and they were greater in the group given just water. They note that the carbohydrate solution was able to supple the muscle carbohydrate demands and improved the athlete’s focus by reducing the number of falls. As such, carbohydrates are a cheap and legal ergogenic (energizing) nutrition aid that can be used to improve performance.

This is the reason why gymnasts should have some source of intra-workout nutrition, especially if they didn’t fuel adequately with a pre-workout meal or snack prior to the workout. Sports performance nutrition is all about “fueling for the work required”, which means giving the athlete the nutrition before the workout so that it can be used as the body needs.

I recommend 20-30g carbohydrate with less than 5-10 g fat or protein 30-60 min before a workout and another 20-30 g of carbohydrate only around the half-way point of a 3-4 hour practice. Obviously the amount of carbohydrate used pre-workout and intra-workout is dependent on the athlete’s age, gender, goals, injury status, etc. But, even for the athlete trying to lean out, they should not be cutting calories in and around workouts. Other meals can be adjusted to make up the calorie deficit without sacrificing performance nutrition.

In Summary

I hope you found this article helpful. I hope you were able to see that carbohydrates are not “bad”, nor are they inherently “fattening”. Any food can cause weight gain if consumed in excess relative to the rest of the diet. And, carbohydrates and not “addicting”. What does tend to be “hyperpalatable” are foods that contain carbohydrates along with sugar, salt, and fat. You’d be very unlikely to overate with a bowl of plain table sugar, but mix that sugar with butter, flour, salt, and chocolate chips (cookie dough) and you may have a harder time.

We’ll talk more about the “fun foods” in another blog post and how specifically to incorporate these into the diet without “guilt”, “shame”, or unintended body composition changes.

As always, if you or your athlete worried about their nutrition and ensuring they’re optimally fueling for body composition and performance, let’s chat.