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How to help your gymnast with nutrition (without the fight)

Raising a teenager is hard in itself, let alone trying to raise one in a #dietculture infused sport like gymnastics. For parents and coaches who understand the great risk and high prevalence of disordered eating in the sport, walking on egg shells and trying not to say the wrong thing as the wrong time is exhausting. You try to talk to your teen gymnast about nutrition, and they want no part of it. You bring up providing them with support from a dietitian or nutritionist, and they want none of it. If any of these resonate with you, read this one over a few times to see what you can do to help decrease the amount of fights you and your athlete have about nutrition.

Adolescent Development

Young children and preteens come by very black and white thinking. They can only understand:

  1. It is all true

or

  1. It is all false

As the child ages, their brain continues to develop and expand this way of dichotomous thinking into more abstract thoughts. Everything is not so all or nothing and through flexible problem solving they are able to grasp concepts such as long-term consequences.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “well my gymnast is so rigid. She has a list of foods she will or won’t eat and anything outside of her box is just not acceptable”. Part of this is due to the nature of the sport and the personality type it draws in. You may have one child who as they developed their thought patterns did become more flexible. However, your gymnast may be stuck in her extremely rigid ways and it is due to temperament, personality, and the perfectionism that is ingrained in them from the sport. It’s easy to dismiss this “all or nothing” approach to nutrition as “dedicated” for the gymnast, even though it may be very disordered and causing a lot of guilt, shame, and anxiety around food and body.

Many times, gymnasts fall into the binge, restrict cycle because of this dichotomous thinking. This swing from extreme under fueling to extreme over fueling is just one example of extreme perfectionism.

The reality is that A+ nutrition does not exist.

There is and never will be a perfect diet or meal. Something around B+ nutrition is what your gymnast’s ideal nutrition goal should aim to be. This means enjoying the fun foods and also eating the nutritionally dense foods. It doesn’t have to be all vegetables and protein or only fun foods. It can be both. Only eating the “healthy” foods doesn’t make your athlete superior to others who do enjoy the fun foods, because FOOD CONTROL NEVER DEFINES ANYONE’S WORTH.

Risk Taking

As your gymnast develops she often begins to fight authority, take more risks, and push limits. This is often where parents get frustrated because they feel that they are have all of the “healthy” food options in the house, but their gymnast only wants to eat cookies, Chick-Fil-A, and ice cream. This action of them pushing away the “healthy” food you buy is their way of taking risk and this is often a result of the “fun” food being forbidden in the house.

When gymnasts are told certain foods are bad for them and/or off limits, they often push back and only want to eat those foods. The best way to solve this issue is to have a variety of foods in the house including the fun foods that everyone loves. It will decrease the “scarcity” mindset around food and most likely will show your gymnast she can have the nutrient dense foods and the fun foods and be ok.

Another way your athlete may take risks is by trying out different diets. Sometimes teens will “try on” a new diet or way of eating from the family as a way to exert their independence, but do not be fooled. Many times, the independence is just the cover up for them wanting to change their body. If your gymnast comes home and announces she’s going plant based they best way to support her is telling her “ok you can do that, but you still need to have complete balanced meals and snacks”. There are so many ways to get all the protein, carbohydrates, fats, and calcium from a plant-based diet, so it is just important to monitor them to make sure they are not using this diet to restrict their food.

If your gymnast wants to try a new diet and cuts out essential food groups for performance, refuses to eat out with friends or restaurants, etc…this is a red flag that there is more going on. Dieting is the gateway to disordered eating, so stay vigilant.

Building Self Confidence

This period of transitioning from a little kid into a teenager is a very vulnerable period in your gymnast’s life. She is probably craving complete control of her body at a time where it’s more out of her control than ever. For gymnasts, body change in a sport that is very body-centric, can produce enormous fears, anxiety, and disordered food and body image beliefs. Your gymnast needs your support more than ever, which includes affirming her “now body” is a good body that can still put on a leotard and do gymnastics, even though it may be different than she’s used to. We all grow up, and this is something the young high level gymnast needs to be reminded of quite frequently.

Two Types of Adolescence

Early Adolescence

This section of adolescence focuses on the preteen and very young teen age groups from 11-13/14. This age group is mainly concerned with fitting in and being accepted by their peers. Because of their need to be liked, they often fall into the harmful trap of peer pressure. They turn to apps like Instagram and Tiktok to find out all of the trending things that professional gymnasts or celebrities are doing and try to mimic them. Tiktok is a huge breeding ground for pro-eating disorder content. The “what I eat in a day” or “my workout routine” clips are some of the most pro-eating disorder, and these platforms entices early adolescents into thinking “if you eat like me, you’ll look like me”.

It is extremely important for parents to monitor their gymnast’s social media presence. Checking her direct messages and who she follows is just one piece of making sure your daughter is not latching on to any eating disordered content. Another thing to monitor is their emails. Often times, gymnasts are too scared to ask their parents for help and wind up taking things into their own hands. They often feel more comfortable reaching out to some random person on Instagram (like a nutritionist, fitness trainer, etc) than their parents because of this layer of anonymity that social media provides. As such, it’s  important to know who they’re looking at, talking to, etc on social media so that you can intervene if something seems fishy.

Late Adolescence

The later period of adolescence is known for teens developing their own identity and relying less on the approval of others. During this time, they are learning to find their own interests and set of values outside of their peers. Sometimes this means pushing parents away, which can get sticky in terms of nutrition. They may roll their eyes or give you the silent treatment when you bring it up, and these are, honestly, some of the things this age of girls does. Now what can you do to help ease the tension?

What Can You Do as a Parent?

The most important thing you can do is give them unconditional support around food and one of the best ways to do that is to keep fun foods in the house at all times. If you notice that you 16,17,or 18-year-old are driving with their friends to get fast food all of the time, it is probably because of a lack of food security at home.

So, what does food security mean?

The idea of having food security at home means that your child feels that all foods are allowed and are not going anywhere. It should not feel like the cookies are only there once in a while because that promotes the increased craving of them and, ultimately, the desire to sneak or binge them. Showing your gymnast that the cookies are always there to have whenever she wants and they are not “bad” or a “treat”, will lead to her actually having a more balanced diet than if they were not in the cabinet.

Another thing you can do is provide structure with meal timing. One of the main problems that lead to teenagers developing eating disorders is that they have erratic meal timing. Gymnasts often will skip breakfast, not take snacks to gym, and then after practice they are starving and cannot stop eating. This cycle of eating begins to replicate the binge restrict cycle if not caught. The best way to help your athlete is to do some of the meals or snacks with them. Offer to eat breakfast or make cookies with them. Often when they feel like they are not the ones being forced to do it, it leads to them following along much better.

Being a good role model for you gymnast is another key piece in helping them with their own relationship to food and their body.

What does it look like to be a good role model in the sense of food/body?

This in itself can be super hard for parents as they may be struggling with their own food and body issues. There is a great book called Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch that also includes a lot of information on child and family feeding. It is basically the “anti-diet” book and it can really help parents come to terms with their own struggles with food in order to best help their athlete.

There is also a podcast called “10% Happier”. In January of this year, this podcast interviewed one of the authors of Intuitive Eating in the episode “anti-diet” to speak more in depth about topics in their book. It is a wonderful podcast that really highlights the psychology of restriction and what effects that has on our mind, bodies, and children. The interviewer of the podcast shares a bit of his own story of how he realized that his own dieting patterns were affecting his son and how he was able to find a new relationship with food. This all being said, this podcast is definitely a great tool for parents to heal their own relationship with food and body, so that they can help their athlete work through theirs.

In regards to your gymnast’s relationship to her body, you have to be there to help her understand that diet culture is wrong. Telling her that her body is a good body and that it is beautiful regardless of what Instagram tells her, is key in helping her build up the tools to one day be able to tell that to herself. Showing her that it is ok to have fun foods and enjoy what you are eating provides her with the awareness to know that food isn’t a reward or punishment, but is actually something meant to be enjoyed.

Lastly, it is very important to recognize when your gymnast needs help. There is a normal extent of an adolescent gaining independence and trying out fad diets. However, when you begin to notice your gymnast not wanting to talk about food, not letting anyone but her make her food, not eating around you, etc. this is when a red flag should go up. All of these things are signs of disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder. This is when it is important to know that they may need professional help and that just talking to teammates is not enough.

You also do not know what has been said to your athlete about her body and food while you were not present. Gymnastics is still pretty messed up. Coaches and team doctors say horrible things to young girls that severely affect they was they think about their body and food. Just because maybe you have not said or done anything to make her feel this way, does not mean that someone else has not. These coaches often have a life altering impact on your child’s life and they take their words to heart no matter if they are good or bad. Hence, it is super important to monitor you child’s eating and behavioral patterns to detect these issues early and give them the best chance of living a life in recovery.

 

Summary

  • Young children and preteens have extreme black and white thinking. Things are either good or they are bad. There is no in between.
  • There is no such thing as A+ nutrition.
  • Your gymnast may start to take risks by trying different diets and resisting authority.
  • Give unconditional support to your daughter and help to build her confidence.
  • As a parent you can:
    • Monitor their social media presence and emails.
    • Keep fun foods in the house at all times.
    • Be a good role model.
    • Provide structured meal timing.
    • Help her understand diet culture is wrong.
  • Recognizing that your gymnast overly controlling her food by hiding it, only making it herself, or not wanting to talk about food what so ever are all red flags of an eating disorder.
  • You do not know all of what is said to your gymnast about food and her body inside the gym.

If you want any more tips on how to support your child in having open dialogue about nutrition or want to schedule a discovery call, feel free to contact me!

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