Do gymnasts need to “eat clean” for optimal performance and health?

In short? No.

In fact, “clean eating” often will cause food issues, can cause underfueling, and overall cause a gymnast to struggle.

Gymnasts CAN experience food freedom and elite performance.

What is “Food Freedom” for the Gymnast?

Food Freedom is:

-The ability to eat whatever, wherever, whenever

-The ability to sort through the “nutrition noise” and see food for what it is

-The ability to enjoy food without guilt/shame/anxiety

How does “Food Freedom” relate to health?

The diet does not have to be 100% “clean”. “Clean” implies that foods are “good or bad”, “clean or dirty”, and set you up for failure.

Clean is such an ambiguous term. What does this even mean?

The term “clean” is arbitrary and though it’s been around for awhile, it really took off wit Tocsa Reno’s articles in Oxygen magazine for bodybuilders. The premise is that you eat foods without any extra salt, fat, sugar and this alone will get you “lean”.

There is no definition of a “clean food”. To a vegan, animal foods are “dirty”. To a gymnast struggling with an eating disorder like orthorexia (will only eat “pure” foods with no added ingredients) they consider anything but plain fruit, vegetables, meat, starches, etc. as “dirty”. The paleo community considers grains, sugar, dairy, added salt, sugar, alcohol, and some vegetables as “dirty”. I could go on. For every food there is someone who says it is “good” and another that says it’s “bad”, “toxic”, or “dangerous”.

Focusing on “eating clean” overlooks so many important aspects to nutrition and health.

Why do I not recommend “clean eating”? Because most people will have behavioral issues like binging, starving/restricting when they are eating “too clean” or become fearful of foods which can lead to disordered eating behaviors. This black-and-white or what we term “dichotomous thinking” plays a big role in disordered eating and eating disorders.

I see parents of gymnasts and their gymnasts making these mistakes all the time. They are so concerned about if their food is “clean” or “anti-inflammatory” that overlook basic energy needs, protein requirements due to training, and proper performance nutrition implementation. And, there is so much stress, time, and energy that goes into planning and preparing meals that the athlete is not totally focused on doing her best in the gym or making sure she is recovering.

It’s doesn’t matter how “clean” your diet is if you’re not adequately fueling for performance, recovery, growth, and development.

Does this mean I’m not saying you should eat a very nutrient dense diet full of high quality protein, colorful fruits and vegetables, anti-inflammatory fats, whole grains, and more? Of course not. But, food is more than just “fuel”.

When Healthy Eating Crosses the Line

If your athlete was given pizza the night before the meet and they refused the pizza because it was “bad” and just went to bed hungry, this is an issue. I know that some types of pizza may not be the best choice for pre-meet meal (like something super greasy/spicy that would cause indigestion and disrupt sleep), but if your gymnast would rather starve than be adequately fueled, their priorities are all wrong. I would rather have your athlete fueled for performance than not and risk sub-optimal performance and risk injury.

I used to recommend the 90/10 or 80/20 “rule” for implementing the “fun foods”, but I’ve stopped saying that as it is still a food rule. But, the point is that flexible eating  can encompass both nutrient dense foods AND the “fun foods” or what I call “junk foods” (the objectively less nutritious, lower fiber, higher sugar/salt/fat foods that are often super delicious). Using the term “fun foods” or just calling the foods for what they are can buffer the negative connotation that can promote guilt and anxiety around these foods.

Yes, for the high level gymnast their diet should be mostly “whole foods”, i.e. high quality protein, nutrient dense fibrous grains and starches, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. After that, it is possible to fit in a few servings per day of “fun foods” especially as most still contain nutrition that can contribute to energy needs, etc. I never give specifics to “how many/much” fun foods are allowed because nutrition is about the averages. Some days we have just a cookie or some chocolate after lunch, other days there is a bigger dessert after dinner, say when it’s a birthday or celebration…or just because.

There is a lot of “magical thinking” when it comes to nutrition. Just because you eat a donut doesn’t mean those carbohydrates can’t be used for energy. There are no foods that cannot still be used by the body for energy, no matter how little nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc) it contains.

The problem with “fun foods” is we often eat them in excess (and end up in a caloric surplus which can prove unwanted weight gain) or they take up too much of the diet and we do not get adequate micronutrients (vitamins/minerals), fiber, or antioxidants for optimal health and recovery. Why do we do this? Often due to chronic dieting and food rules that have disrupted our relationship with food + body and ability to honor our hunger and how we feel.

The other issue with “clean eating” is this creates rigid, dichotomous “good vs bad” thinking that can so easily spiral into obsessive behaviors. The gymnast, a typical type-A perfectionist, is at particular risk of spiraling into disordered eating behaviors be subscribing to this method of eating.

Generally, what starts out as wanting to eat healthfully or lose a few pounds turns into becoming afraid of almost all foods and the gymnast is then paralyzed by food fear which can lead to severe health ramifications (intense anxiety, weight loss, cessation of menstruation, overuse injuries, etc.).

Sure, you could call the nutrient dense foods I refer to as “clean”, but I’m also not that exact. To me, as a pediatric dietitian sports nutritionist, a meal of grilled steak (with my fave seasoning Daddy Hinkle’s), potatoes with some cheese (mashed, au gratin, roasted, etc.), and a salad with dressing, fruit, and nuts is equivalent to the “healthy foods”. That kind of meal is rich in high quality protein, healthy fats, tons of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and provides satisfaction which is important. If you wanted to include French fries instead of another form of potatoes, I’d call the French fries the “fun food” because we know that fried fats are more pro-inflammatory and will have more calories from the oil than baked fries or some other kind of potatoes, depending of course how it’s prepared.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this place. 10+ years ago when I was struggling a teen gymnast, I would have freaked out about the salt in the steak seasoning (worried about being “bloated”), refused the potatoes because they were “white carbs”, and refused a creaming dressing on the salad, picked out the nuts because they were “too high calorie”. Once you hit rock bottom of food prison, you realize its’ a miserable place to exist.

At the end of the day, the anxiety and restriction of foods while trying to eat “clean” is going to produce more bodily stress that contributes to inflammation etc. versus a diet that’s mostly “clean” or “healthy” (but still includes the fun foods) that leaves you feeling calm about food, able to enjoy the social and cultural experiences around food, and both nourishes and satisfies which lessen the chance of feeling the need to overeat.

This is a very macroscopic view of food, health, and nutrition. I don’t expect you to agree with me 100% at this point, but something I want you to think about in relation to yourself, your gymnast, and the food/body relationship.

But I was told you can’t get lean unless you “eat clean”?

-Body composition is the amount of body fat vs lean mass, bone mass, etc.

-Getting “leaner” is a product of implementing a caloric deficit with sufficient protein to abate lean mass loss

-Levels of leanness are relative to the individual and based on genetics, etc. Some athletes can maintain a level of leanness without health or performance consequences that others cannot. This also relates to dieting history, weight flux/yo yo dieting, etc.

I hate to break it to you, but you “get lean” because you’re in a caloric deficit which can be derived by any sort of diet or combination of foods. This is something I didn’t used to think was true, but then I found out that bodybuilders (leanest athletes of any “sport”) could diet down to single-digit bodyfat on “all foods fit” diets i.e. mostly healthy or “clean” foods but also fitting in cookies, candy, etc. while maintaining their appropriate caloric deficit.

If individual foods were inherently fattening beyond their calorie value, then body builders would be unable to “get lean” on anything but “clean foods”.

Will “food freedom” hurt a gymnast’s performance?

“Food Freedom” isn’t a free-for-all.

While “intuitive eating” may look like delaying a meal because you’re not hungry, this is where practical hunger kicks in and you need to eat to fuel versus to abate hunger at times. Intuitive eating may also look like not eating vegetables with your lunch because they “don’t sound good”, but the gymnast needs higher levels of nutrients than the average person to facilitate recovery. They can’t just “eat whatever you want” and expect to get it right.

The high level gymnast needs adequate calories for energy, growth, and development; adequate carbohydrate for muscular recovery and adaption; and appropriate carbohydrates for performance fueling along with fat to help provide energy, contribute to normal hormone production, etc.

The “Big Rocks” of the gymnast’s diet

Adequate energy (calories) is the most important aspect of the gymnast’s diet. At times a caloric deficit may be required if the gymnast is needing to lose some body fat, but we know this will impact performance and recovery so it needs to be carefully implemented and monitored by a trained professional in sports nutrition.

As for the “what” of the diet, the three main macronutrients all play an important role.

Protein needs to be consumed 3-5 times per day to stimulate “muscle protein synthesis”. This looks like at least a palm sized portion of protein (20-30 g) at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a smaller amount at 1-3 snacks throughout the day.

High quality, high bioavailable animal proteins are going to have a greater leucine content which is key to “turning on” muscle protein synthesis as compared to lesser quality plant proteins.

If your gymnast is vegetarian or vegan, special attention needs to be payed to her diet to ensure she’s getting the right balance of complimentary protein (plant proteins do not contain all the essential amino acids), along with other often over-looked micronutrients like calcium, iron, b12, vitamin D, and others.

Carbohydrate is needed for sufficient energy. Carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and grains/starches) will also provide adequate vitamins/minerals/fiber/antioxidants. All carbs are not equal, and 90% of them need to be “wholesome”, “whole foods”, etc. This is what I refer to as “carbohydrate quality”. A whole grain is a “higher quality” carbohydrate than something made of bleached white flour due to a high level of vitamins/minerals/antioxidants/fiber.

I talk a lot about carbohydrates as these are often the most feared food group in the gymnastics world, for unfounded reasons and old European dogma.

I have worked with high level gymnasts and figure skaters whose coaches from Russia or Romania give them blanket recommendations to not eat any bread, sugar, fruit, rice, or potatoes out of fear of the athlete “getting fat”. More on why the gymnast shouldn’t fear carbohydrate (and why it is the essential fuel for the sport of gymnastics, being an anaerobic sport) here.

Fats needs to be anti-inflammatory for the most par and provide additional energy along with the essential building blocks for hormones and more. Most of the fats should come from olive oil, avocado, walnuts, flax seeds, etc. We want to minimize the fried fats as the high temperature changes their composition and makes them pro-inflammatory. There is nothing magical about saturated fats like animal fat, coconut oil, etc. IT’s fine to have those fats in moderation, but they are not as beneficial as omega 3’s from fish or monounsaturated fats in olive oil.

Keep in mind that some sources of fat also offer other very beneficial nutrients that should not be left out of the diet. For instance, eggs contain choline which is a valuable nutrient for brain development and hard to find in other foods. There is nothing wrong with the egg yolk, read more here, as it also provides some high-quality protein. Yes, egg yolks contain saturated fat which has long been something nutrition experts have recommended limiting to 10% of the diet or less, but you would not want to throw them out. A very recent study notes that though saturated fats increase the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in most individuals, this does not increase the small, dense LDL particles (as compared to larger LDL) that are strongly associated with cardiovascular disease risk.

So what do you do if you’re super confused about nutrition or have become afraid of some foods?

I understand your worries, anxieties, and confusion about food at a very personal level. Trying to sort through the nutrition “noise” as a young gymnast, college student, and young dietitian was brutal and resulted in a lot of dieting, food fads, and nutritional dogma.

I think there comes a point where you are so stressed out about nutrition, the food quality, and ingredients of what you’re eating that this is diminishing not only your mental healthy, quality of life, but likely contributing more stress (and inflammation) that if you weren’t trying to be “perfect”. This is not a “cop out” but just comes from years of real-life work experience with humans and high level athletes.

The other key here is consistency and adherence. I teach my high level clients that by allowing yourself to enjoy a moderate portion of a “fun food”, that keeps you sane and allows you to stick to the other super healthy 90% of the diet.

This is the same concept regarding rest days that a lot of athletes, myself included back in the day, struggle with. We always think that “more is better”, but “better is better”. By resting more, you can come back stronger. By relaxing your nutrition a little and enjoy food, you are more able to stick to the “healthy” foods that are needed for performance and recovery.

How can my gymnast find “food freedom” without sacrificing body composition or performance!

If this article was helpful but you still have questions about your gymnast, please shoot me a message or apply for 1:1 nutrition coaching if you think your gymnast has a problem and needs help. I work with high level gymnasts everyday and help them find food freedom while pursuing elite performance. Those two things can co-exist, and I’d love to show you how!