All of us. These “claims” are all over social media, print magazines, news segments, and frequently come from the mouths of “nutrition pros” like trainers, coaches, and non-credentialed/licensed nutritionists (i.e., not registered dietitian nutritionists). It is so easy for our athletes to buy into these “black-and-white” rules because they make life easier. Until they don’t

What happens in times like COVID-19 where food may become scarce, everyone is rationing the groceries, etc? If an athlete has subscribed to a bunch of foods rules, they will become super anxious and have a hard time functioning within the family in terms of food.

I was the young gymnast who “googled” *best diet for athletes to get lean* and read that I should only be eating egg whites. I took this as complete “truth” and started refusing to eat what my mom prepared if it contained the whole yolk. At the same time, the food sneaking and binging behaviors started to increase because I was mentally unsatisfied with an egg-white only omelet, especially when everyone else was enjoying the whole egg with cheese, etc. I was also the athlete who was afraid of drinking water or eating foods with “too much” sodium as I didn’t want to be “bloated”.

The next two food rules are probably the most common ones I hear being ostracized by “health pros” in the gymnastics world. These foods can have a place in the diet if desired; anything related to nutrition must be viewed in “context” …Context of what other foods are being consumed, energy needs, exercise expenditure, goals, etc.

1. Food Rule: Egg Yolks are BAD- Truth: The egg yolk is part of the egg that contains the most fat, yet only has 5g of fat per yolk. For context, a tbsp of peanut or almond butter has 8g of fat and ½ of an avocado has 15 g of fat. So, even if you eat 2-3 eggs at a meal, that is still the same or less what most of my athletes would add to their meals in terms of almond butter or avocado. Eggs are also rich in choline, which is an essential nutrient for brain development, and give young minds are still developing, this is a non-negotiable since it’s hard to get from other food sources.

2. Food Rule: Sports drinks are NOT for gymnasts- Truth: Gatorade is an electrolyte solution that is 6% carbohydrate. This drink was developed by the University of Florida (Gators) as researchers found that water can be better absorbed by the body when accompanied by salt and sugar (glucose). I’ll spare you, but this has to do with how the body absorbs water through the intestines using sodium-glucose cotransporters (SGLT).

A “nutritionist” I know of that works with many gymnasts, including elite athletes, recently released a cookbook where he/she details several nutrition “rules” for gymnasts, and “water only for the gymnast” is one of them since gymnasts “don’t really sweat”. They say verbatim, “Sodium helps the body retain water, but gymnasts don’t lose much water from sweat in workouts.”

Excuse me? I VIVIDLY remember summer workouts where even with air conditioning my entire leotard, sports bra, and briefs were soaked with sweat during practice. If you’re sweating that much or are a “salty sweater”, you’re going to need more than just water to keep you hydrated through practice. And, as little as 2% dehydration will impair work output and cognitive performance which puts you at high risk of injury. This person also talks about how “sodium is the problem with bloating”. No, it’s not. Bloating is what happens to ALL of us when we eat food. This is normal. Some people have more bloating that others, but no big deal. Bloating is also super common in my athletes who are “eating clean” and are eating TOO much fiber from greens, broccoli, seeds, fiber supplements, etc (yep, too much of anything can be unhelpful). Also, bloating is super common when individuals are too lean and struggling with disordered eating as the gut can become “sluggish” if given inadequate food.

Water retention from sodium, like after a salty Chinese takeout meal, is normal. Drink water, the body will do a great job at balancing out fluid and move on. Unless you have congestive heart failure, you don’t need to be stressing about sodium as a high-level athlete. It’s claims like these that make gymnasts even more conscious of their bodies and start to develop weird food rules like refusing to eat salty meals, refusing to eat out, refusing sports drink even when their body may need it, etc.

This “nutritionist” has a beef with the fact an entire bottle of Gatorade “contains 56 grams of sugar and 426 milligrams of sodium”. So, I’m not sure where this person got her nutrition information, but last time I checked (today) a 16 oz bottle of Gatorade has 34 g of sugar (glucose/fructose) and 270 milligrams (mg) of sodium. Take a 16 oz bottle of Gatorade to practice with another 16-20 oz of water and you’ll be set.

The body utilizes 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour during exercise, and I’d argue the gymnast needs at least 15-30 g of carb/hour since gymnastics is a start-and-stop sport where you aren’t moving the entire hour, usually. Elite gymnasts may very well need the 30-60g per hour especially during very strenuous training sessions in hot, humid climates. As far as the 270 mg of sodium, or even the 426 mg they claim, this is a moderate amount compared to the daily requirement for sodium. Adolescents needs 1-2 mEq per kilogram- body weight of sodium per day which is 23-46 mg per kilogram. For the 45 kg gymnast (100#), they need 1000-2000 mg sodium per day as part of normal fluid and electrolyte balance. This does not include the sodium that needs to be replaced from sweat losses, which can be anywhere 220-1,100 mg per pound of sweat. How do I know this? I’m a board certified Nutrition Support Clinician which means I’m an expert in fluid and electrolyte management. When your child is ill and in the hospital and needing tube feedings or IV nutrition, I’m part of the team that “designs” the mix of electrolytes, glucose, lipids, and amino acids that will keep them alive. I’ve had years of education in body fluid regulation, pediatric electrolyte needs, etc. I digress…

Also, in terms of the “sugar” in these sports drink, a super cool research study found that gymnasts who consumed sugar-containing sports drink (and it was a really sugary mix) had better concentration, less falls during tough beam workout. Sure, this is just one research study, but it’s worth a try as substituting a sports drink for a week or more during workouts instead of water (if you are a high level athlete, i.e. competitive gymnast practicing more than 3 hours per day). Carbohydrate is a cheap, LEGAL, ergogenic aid (performance enhancing) that gymnasts may be missing out on if they’re scared to use a sports drink when appropriate.

Sure, you can also have other sources of carbohydrate during workout like fruit, pretzels, etc. but the electrolyte solutions have the right balance of sodium and other electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, chloride, etc.) to best re-hydrate and refuel muscle glucose. You don’t have to drink the entire bottle, but even a 50/50 diluted sports drink used only during workouts could be beneficial to performance. There is a big difference in children who exercise less than 60-90 minutes per day drinking Gatorade all day because it “tastes good” versus the athlete who is training 3+ hours per day, sweating a lot, and needing supplemental carbohydrates and electrolytes during the intense workouts.

These sweeping not-entirely-true claims are really damaging. They spread misinformation and lead many gymnasts to struggle with food and their bodies for YEARS after their retire from the sport. And for many, their careers are cut short because of bad information that leads to poor performance and higher rates of injuries/inadequate fueling.

 

If you hear broad, very generalized nutrition claims like these two, put your thinking-cap on or go ask an expert. They’re likely too good to be true.

 

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