Learn to fuel the gymnast for optimal performance and longevity in the sport.
Learn how to fuel your gymnast so that you can avoid the top 3 major nutrition mistakes that keep most gymnasts stuck, struggling, and injured.
What are the first words you think of when I say the word dietitian or nutritionist? If you thought “meal plan”, then you are spot on. Especially in the sport of gymnastics, many gymnasts, parents, and coaches thrive off of predictability and consistency. When it comes to nutrition, often times clients want a written-out meal plan to tell them exactly what and when to eat. With busy schedules and logistical hurdles, such as school, training, etc, gymnasts and parents often want something that is straight forward, easy to follow, and consistent.
Although I get this mindset, I myself actually do not like meal plans. Now before you stop reading, give me a second to explain.
Rigid, “black and white” meal plans are a temporary fix. Meal plans generally “work”, until they don’t. I can confidently say that there are many dietitians who will write you a meal plan, probably in less than five minutes. They will tell you your athlete needs “x” number of calories, this much fat, this much protein, and this much carbohydrate, and then they will send you on your way. However, this method of fueling only sets your gymnast up for the time they are in the sport, if that at all. The goal with working with a dietitian is to teach your gymnast how to fuel properly for not just gymnastics, but life.
I too have been down this road before. As many of you know, I was a gymnast and by the age of 14 I began struggling with an eating disorder. For many years it went untreated, and it was not until I hit rock bottom in college that I decided to do the work and recover. Meanwhile, as I was entering college and still trying to find my identity outside of gymnastics, I decided to research things like “getting lean”, “clean eating”, etc. I stumbled into the body building world and began to work out 2.5 hours a day. You may think this is better than 4-5 hours a day as a gymnast, but it was still way too much for where my body was at (i.e., still not eating enough, no period, etc).
Because I was counting every calorie I ate and working out all the time, I really missed out on a lot of the college experience. The worst part about this was that even after all the restriction and exercise I still was not happy with my body. This constant disapproval of one’s body is known as body dysmorphia and it is very common in gymnasts. As oddly as this sounds, it is not so much caused by food, but more so by their lack of self-worth, identity, and/or the idea of perfectionism.
My suffering of body dysmorphia led me to a well-known blogger’s page where she talked about how her best friend, who was a dietician, wrote her a super easy meal plan. After following it, she claimed that she had lost so much weight and was able to get her old body which was music to my ears. This led to me paying hundreds of dollars for my own meal plan that, now looking back, was barely enough calories to feed a toddler let alone someone who has amenorrhea and an eating disorder.
The meal plan that I was put on was extremely specific and went by the Diabetic Exchange Program. Essentially, this system converts amounts of food into specific portion measurements. Instead of saying to have 4 oz of chicken and 2 cups of broccoli, the meal plan would say have 1 protein and 2 vegetable.
This separation of nutrients creates such a rift in what we actually cook and what the meal plan wants us to intake. This exchange system led me to eat each macronutrient separate from one another, leaving no room for any combination foods like pizza or lasagna. You can see here that this method of fueling actually pulls you farther from society because now you can no longer eat the same things as them if you want to follow the meal plan. This being said, rigid rules around food never lead to good things happening in the long term.
While your gymnast may not be given this exact system, this prescriptive method of meal planning is the same as using measuring cups, a food scale, etc. It’s just not realistic for real life, travel, socializing, or real meals (that aren’t made of totally separate ingredients).
As I continued to follow this meal plan, I started eating weird combinations of food at strange times when I was not hungry. My body was so confused and starving, because this meal plan could not sustain a toddler’s energy needs, that one night I could not hold it together any more. I ate a bunch of chocolate and instantly I felt so guilty. I emailed the dietician right away and she had the audacity to hand me a brochure on emotional eating.
There are so many things wrong with this picture, however the major thing is that the dietician just assumed that I was emotional eating. She never asked about my eating disorder, exercise habits, etc. Instead, she handed me a packet that suggested that I had binge eating disorder and needed to monitor my stress eating.
I was not binging because I was stressed, but simply because I was starving. The body, when in that state of starvation, will do whatever it takes to get the nutrients it needs to make sure it can continue to function. Binge eating definitely is a valid eating disorder, however there is a very large difference between someone who actually has this disorder and someone who is simply starving and needs to take in excess food at one point in time. Make sure your provider knows all of your history and is well educated on eating disorders because sometimes they can hurt you more than they can help you.
Lastly, this meal plan caused so many fights between my mom and me at dinner time. My mom is an amazing cook and loves to make gourmet meals every night, but none of the food she made fit in with the exchange program I was using. This caused blow out fights because I would not eat her food. I would be sitting there doing mental math to calculate if I was meeting my meal plan and/or how many calories I was intaking. I could not go off of my plan and if that meant skipping mom’s dinners, then that is what I would do.
The major flaw of giving a gymnast a meal plan in regards to rigidity is that they are VERY BLACK AND WHITE THINKERS. The technical term for this is “dichotomous thinking”. Many gymnasts are Type A, perfectionists, so no matter if you say there is flexibility in the plan they are not going to listen. In their brain the only thing that is registering is food rules. They want to follow the plan to a tee and if they mess up, even one day, they will immediately define themselves as a failure. This “on plan off plan” mentality is a breeding ground for disordered eating and is one of the main reasons that I DO NOT WRITE MEAL PLANS. If there is restriction going on, I sometimes will give my clients minimums; however, I am very conscious of my word choice because I do not want to promote the perfectionist thought patterns that many gymnast thrive on. It’s important to note that during eating disorder treatment, often more strict meal guidelines are needed to ensure adequacy of nutritional intake, but we still try really hard to not make these “black and white”.
You may be thinking to yourself, “are you sure that’s true?”. And yes I am 100% certain. The behaviors associated with “food addiction” are born out of restriction and deprivation.
If you or someone you know feels like they’re “addicted” to food, they likely are experienced one of both of the following:
This is why when your gymnast eats something she loves and/or breaks a food rule, she may throw all caution to the wind and “eat all the food”. Her lack of adequate nutrition and extreme hunger cause her to have impaired mental capacity in terms of listening to her hunger and fullness. This is where the perfectionistic thinking comes in and ultimately it turns into a vicious cycle of restrict, eat a food you love, feel guilty, punish yourself by not eating.
You may be thinking:
“Well then how are you going to help my athlete if you don’t write meal plans?”
I teach your gymnast a way of thinking that allows her to balance her meals and snacks, to figure out timing, and to understand her digestion. I will talk to her a lot about hunger and fullness, and what it means to honor her body’s natural signals that it is ready to eat. She will also learn about creating meals that bring her satisfaction and not just the bare nutrients she needs to scrape by.
So yes, I do provide my clients with many types of support; however, I will not write her an “x” number of calorie meal plan and say “comply or die”. The major reason is because a meal plan only serves a short-term purpose, and when life gets in the way gymnast’s freak out. An example is when your gymnast goes to college and she is eating in the dining hall. She can no longer measure out her 4 oz of chicken because someone else is putting it on her plate, and this leads to massive panic. She no longer knows how to properly fuel her body, which is when many eating disorders begin to develop.
This being said, putting your gymnast on a meal plan is only a recipe for disaster that could be completely avoided. It is a lot harder to reverse the damage that a meal plan does than to just not write one in the first place.
*I know many of you have seen my new meal plan subscription and it needs to be made very clear that it is not a verbatim meal plan. There are meal and snack ideas provided, however it is not meant to be followed to a tee. Each of your athletes are unique and need different amounts of fuel to nourish their bodies; therefore, it is crucial to make sure your gymnast is going off of their own hunger ques not the exact portions of the plan.*
All of this being said, meal plans can cause more problems than they help and for this reason I do believe in teaching your athletes about their body and how to make balanced meals.
If you have any more questions or concerns please feel free to contact me or schedule a discovery call!