As parents of high level gymnasts, you only want to help. You want to help your gymnast achieve all of her wildest goals and dreams and don’t want to see her hurt or struggling. Nutrition and body image struggles can not only ruin your gymnast’s career but place a lot of tension on your relationship with them.
Gymnastics is a sport at great risk of distorted body image and disordered eating patterns. The typical type-A perfectionist gymnast is also at risk of trying to use food (or lack of food) as a source of control. Simple mantras like “eat clean to get lean” or “sugar is toxic” get taken so literally that all of the sudden you find yourself watching your gymnast’s food variety dwindle before your eyes.
As you know, gymnasts are very high performing not only at the gym but at school and all other endeavors. They never want to fail and this easily translates to how they view food and their bodies.
Parents always have the best intentions with their children, but some things we do and say may be counter-productive. This is super common with nutrition and body image. As a parent, you want to be sure that you’re doing what you can to support your athlete in a positive way.
Your gymnast may still struggle, as there are many other influences in their lives, but you can be that safe haven for them and a person they can turn to when struggles arise.
Here are my top 5 things you may be doing that are causing your gymnast to struggle with food and her body image:
1. Over-restricting Food
Examine your “food rules”- Where’s the evidence? Documentaries or your favorite Instagram influencers doesn’t count. Research is cherry picked and headlines are often incorrect. If you’ve eliminated a food or certain food group in the name of “health”, you’ve likely been misled. Every famous diet or diet program hinges on eliminating some food or food group. The truth is, any diet works for weight loss if it puts you in a caloric deficit (causes you to eat less than your body needs). In terms of “health” and things like “inflammation”, there are definitely ways you can improve your nutrition to improve your health, but they’re often oversold and exaggerated based on the available evidence.
Sugar and sweets- Let’s talk carbohydrate metabolism and why they’re not going to kill you. See this post for more information.
Fun Foods- the 10%. Serve them with meals/snacks. Ask your children which ones’ they want and include them at regular intervals. This lessens the feeling of restriction and need to eat “all the things” when they finally get their hands on something. If your athlete loves to bake, agree to some boundary (baking one thing at a time until it’s gone) that is reasonable but not too restrictive.
2. You're not providing a solid meal/snack structure
Think 3 meals, 1-3 snacks- Trust and consistency helps w/ overeating, etc. Allows children to respond to hunger cues. It’s normal to be somewhat hungry and ready for the next meal or snack. This works out to eating something about every 2.5-4 hours for the athlete, depending on their age, development, goals, etc.
Set the boundaries- it’s appropriate to make your gymnast sit at the table before practice and eat something as a pre-workout meal/snack. It’s common for athletes to not want to eat before practice (nervous stomach, etc) but at minimum they need 20-30g of carbohydrate and a little fat/protein (<5-10 g each and minimal fiber). Same thing goes for dinner. Just because your athlete gets home after 8 or 9PM from practice doesn’t mean they get to skip out on a balanced meal. The body isn’t on a clock and you don’t “get fat” from eating late. You gain weight from chronically overeating.
There’s nothing wrong with providing a small snack even when you think it’s “too close to a meal”. Having 2-3 crackers and and part of a cheese stick 45 minutes before dinner won’t ruin most athletes’ appetites. But, showing up to dinner “hangry” (hungry/anger) may make it difficult for your athlete to regulate at that meals and they may overeat because they got to the point of “too hungry”.
3. You're always commenting about your gymnast's body
Body comments never work-Just don’t. I know you mean to help, but no one needs to be told they’re “fat” or “have gained weight”. This is really sticky territory and I’d advise you to seek outside support to determine how your athlete is doing regarding her weight and body.
Also, weight is not the same as body composition and weight/BMIs will almost always be higher for athletes who have more muscle. Muscle takes up less space that fat, so even though your athlete may weigh more than her peers, she could actually be leaner or more fit which is what counts for the athlete.
Do seek to understand growth and development before you say anything to your gymnast. If her coaches say something to you, again, go back and review her growth and development with the pediatrician.
Telling a 14 year old gymnast she’s “getting big” when this is a normal part of growth for her that has been suppressed due to high levels of training and inadequate food is not helpful. Let her body develop. Trust that her body will be what it needs to, and most Olympic or collegiate gymnasts have the bodies of young women and not of little girls.
Weight gain is normal- Know that if your gymnast has put on some weight that may not be “normal” for her, food is not usually the issue. It is very easy for children to learn to cope with food instead of dealing with difficult emotions, and even though many gymnasts are more “mature” than their peers, this doesn’t mean they are emotionally mature. In fact, often gymnastics teaches athletes to “show no emotion”, “grit through the pain”, etc which can hinder their ability to experience emotions in a healthy way instead of relying on food to numb those emotions.
4. Telling your gymnast to “suck it up”, “stop it”, or “just do it”
If it was easy, we’d all be healthy.
Words like these make them feel worse about their struggle and like they cannot share with you that they’re struggling.
Telling your gymnast to just “stop it” will likely put a huge barrier between you and them.
As the continue to struggle, they’ll no longer feel like they can come to you because they don’t want to be chastised. Again, if they could fix their issue alone, they would. No one likes to admit they’re struggling or ask for help.
As a parent, you want to be that “safe place” for your athlete to come to when they’re struggling.
5. You're constantly dieting or struggling with your own body
You’re allowed to struggled. No one is perfect. But, don’t seek support in your child.
They are constantly watching you. Every diet, every body comment.
A big part of my motivation to recover from the eating disorder was to strive to be a good role model for my future children. I don’t want them to see me struggle with food and my body and then think there is something wrong with themselves.
If you’re currently struggling, please know you’re not alone.
Feeding competency is “being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable and nourishing food.” See this post by Ellyn Satter for more.
It’s really important for your own eating and body image to be normal and healthy as your child/teen is always watching you.
Parents’ own eating behaviors and body image have a major impact on their children/teens.
I’d encourage you to check in with yourself and make sure you’re not struggling with the following:
- Undereating, food rules
- Over exercising
- Food behaviors (meal skipping, etc)
If you are struggling with any of these areas, please reach out for help. You cannot help your children when you’re not helping yourself. You deserve treatment. You deserve counseling and mental health support. Parenting is not easy and the stress can exacerbate your own food/body image issues.
Seeking support is brave. You have no idea the positive impact this can have your athlete. You seeking support is not weakness.
So, is it too late? No, absolutely not.
You are allowed to change your nutrition philosophies and food parenting.
This could be one of the most powerful things for your gymnast to watch.
If you’ve previously been a clean-eating, no sugar/dairy kind of family but then realize that restriction is not serving you nor your children, you are allowed to change your mind. Explain to them you’re trying to balance out your nutrition and include all foods.
For instance, my mom was in the “fat is bad” club until I was in about high-school. She had started dieting on low fat yogurts, ice cream, cheese, etc in the 80-90s and associated weight gain with full-fat products. All calories count, but it’s easy to believe that a certain food will somehow cause more weight gain than another in the exact same caloric amount.
Once I started learning about nutrition and the different kinds of fat, we realized that the “real deal” versions of these products weren’t going to kill us. By eating more of what you enjoy, it’s easier to eat less because you are satisfied. Together, we’d go to the grocery and question ourselves why were always buying the leanest cuts of beef (London broil), skim dairy products, or were trying to “healthify” desserts by substituting yogurt or applesauce for the fat.
I don’t fault her for changing her mind. And you’re allowed to as well.
If you are worried about your gymnast and her body or are anxious that you’re not doing the right thing for them with nutrition, you’d be the perfect fit for my program The Balanced Gymnast. Together we’ll work through all aspects of nutrition for the gymnast while supporting their body image and elite performance both in and out of the gym.
Not only will you both learn what is needed for them to feel their best, but you and the rest of your family will also benefit from the empowerment and guidance.
Click here for more information