If you “google” gymnast diet or “what should a gymnast eat” you’ll find a variety of resources and news articles from various media outlets that detail what past high level gymnasts (elite) consume in a day. How a high level gymnast should eat is dependent on their goals, preferences, schedule, etc. Most of these articles are not written by registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) nor are they from athletes who have worked with RDN who specialize in sports nutrition. Nothing is more dangerous that just copying someone else’s diet because you think you’ll get the same results.
Gymnast, Stop Copying Someone Else's Nutrition
You have to take all of the “what famous gymnast X eats in a day” articles with a grain of salt. First off, no one is entirely truthful when asked about their diet, especially for an interview w/ NBC or Cosmopolitan Magazine. No one is going to say “oh yeah, and I had a handful of chocolate chips after dinner because I wanted something sweet”. Most gymnasts will detail their “clean diets” and how they “just eat clean” and don’t necessarily worry about the rest.
Secondly, very few of these gymnasts have been able to work with legit sports dietitian nutritionists based on the preponderance of athletes who claim they just “eat clean”. A sports dietitian nutritionist would have taught the gymnast how to fuel their body, how to enjoy all foods while still reaching their goals, and doesn’t use terms like “clean” or “good and bad” as they know the high risk of developing disordered eating in a sport like gymnastics. We have failed our American gymnasts by not supporting the use of registered dietitian nutritionists trained in sports nutrition.
Why Gymnasts Need to work with Registered Dietitian Nutritionists
Real quick, let me show you the difference between Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN) and “nutritionists”. The sad reality is there are “nutritionists”, not licensed board certified sports dietitians, that promote “clean eating” and other orthorexic behaviors as the only way to be an elite athlete.
Even sadder, many a gymnast has developed disordered eating or an eating disorder by listening to these nutrition gurus or following what their coaches or teammates tell them to-do.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)
- Board Certified by the Commission on Dietetic Registration
- Licensed by their state’s medical board (just like a physician or pharmacist has to be licensed to practice, otherwise it’s illegal)
- 4 years of an undergraduate degree in nutritional sciences, dietetics, food science, exercise science, etc + 2 years of required coursework specific to becoming a dietitian (biochemistry, medical nutrition therapy, advanced nutrition, nutritional counseling, pediatric nutrition, sports nutrition, etc).
- 1 year dietetic internship (similar to a medical residency) with no less than 1200 hours of supervised practice counseling patients, calculating nutrition needs, tube feedings, parental nutrition, sports nutrition, eating disorders, type 1 & type 2 diabetes, etc
- 75 hours of continuing education every 5 years (approved webinar, medical conferences, etc)
- Additional board certification for specific specialties like CSP “Certified Specialist in Pediatric and Adolescent Nutrition” or CSSD “Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics” which all require at least 2 years of practice + 2000 hours supervised hands-on practice in the specialty (i.e. working with athletes, working with pediatric/adolescent patients, engaging in clinical research, etc).
- Other countries have similar certifications and training
- No bachelor degree required (no education required)
- Anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”
- No supervision or licensure for accountability and oversight
- Not educated in medical nutrition therapy, pediatric/adolescent nutrition, eating disorders, complex sports nutrition, etc
- Cannot practice medical nutrition therapy (prescribing diets, supplementing, monitoring growth/body composition, labs, injury status, etc)
As a RDN, I don’t give meal plans. I don’t give cookie-cutter handouts and say “here you go, $695 please”. Everything you get from me is custom to your needs because you are an individual.
Your body is not a calculator and we are not machines, and thus need not be treated like one. Together we figure out what will work best for you and your body. It’s my job to equip and empower you to learn to “nourish with ease”.
Normal Eating vs "Clean Eating" for the Gymnast
I want to compare and contrast two days of eating for the high level gymnast. I’ve included 3 meals, 2-3 snacks, and also included the Performance Nutrition which encompasses the pre/intra/post workout nutrition and hydration to support a 4 hour workout. This pattern follows the current evidence-based recommendations for the gymnast. This isn’t a perfect comparison because I wanted to show you what a “clean eating” plan would look like based on recommendations from a well-known “nutritionist” in the gymnastics world. Just the other day one of my high level gymnast prospective clients asked if I gave “general meal plans” or gave specific recommendations. I could hardly keep myself together. This is the difference between trained, licensed, board certified dietitians and everyone else who can call themselves a “nutritionist” with a few hours of an online course or whatever they choose to do to claim to be legitimate.
Clean eating doesn’t guarantee you success. I cannot stress this enough. Read this article to see more of my thoughts on “Does a Gymnast have to ‘eat clean’?”. In short, no. There’s a big difference between arbitrarily “eating clean” and purposely including nutrient dense foods in the diet but balancing it with foods that still taste good, add flavor, and allow you to keep your sanity aka stick to your diet. If the person you hire to work with yourself or your athlete just tells you to “eat clean”, run away.
“Normal Eating”- 80% nutrient dense, 20% “fun foods”
Breakfast: Moderate Intensity Plate (Pre-Workout Meal)
- ½ cup oatmeal, 1 cup 2% milk, 1 tbsp peanut butter, 1 banana
Intraworkout nutrition + hydration
- 1 small bag pretzels (1 oz), 1 box sour raisins, 48 oz water, 16 oz Gatorade
- 1 cup FairLife chocolate milk + 1 cup strawberries
Lunch: Moderate Intensity Plate
- 2 slices whole grain bread
- 2 eggs
- 1 slice American cheese
- 1 piece bacon
- 2 cups mixed greens
- ½ small apple, chopped
- 1 tbsp pistachios
- 1 tbsp blue cheese
- 2 tbsp strawberry lemon vinaigrette
- 1 container Chobani lower sugar Greek yogurt + 1 peach + 1/2 cup Peanut Butter Puffins
Dinner: Moderate Intensity Plate
- 3-4 oz Teriyaki Salmon, 1.5 cups Three Cheese Ravioli tossed in olive oil/garlic w/ parmesan, 1 cup steamed broccoli w/ parmesan cheese
Snack: 3 pieces dark chocolate + 1 small chocolate chip cookie (homemade)
The “normal eating” plan is pretty reminiscent of a successful high level gymnast’s diet who includes all foods yet ensure that “nutrient density” is included at most meals and snacks. This meets ~100% of calories (2500 kcal), carbohydrate (at least 5 g/kg), protein (1.2-2.0 g/kg), fat (~30% calories), and vitamin/mineral needs of the average adolescent high level gymnast. Added sugar is less than 5% total calories, which is less than the recommendation for added sugar being less than 10% total calories.
I know a lot of you are terrified of sugar, so read this post first, but understand the reality is a gymnast needs a lot of carbohydrate and all carbohydrate breaks down into sugar (glucose/fructose). It’s not about how much sugar is in the diet but “are you getting enough of what you need?”. This day met 100% of the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) for all major vitamins/minerals- Vitamin D, Calcium, Iron, Folate, etc. The omega 6: omega 3 ratio is 3:1 which is actually pretty good with the goal being 2:1.
This example plan also allows a lot of flexibility for travel, social outings, etc which means it is much more likely to be adhered to. Better adherence, better results.
100% “clean eating”
Breakfast/Pre-workout: 1 rice cake, 2 tbsp hummus, 4 slices cucumber, tomato
Intraworkout nutrition + hydration: water
Recovery nutrition-1 lettuce wrap, 3 oz tuna, 2 tbsp salsa, ½ cup brown rice, slice of avocado
Lunch: 5 oz chicken, 1 oz almonds, 4 oz berries
Snack: 1/3 cup pistachios + 1 cheese stick
Dinner: turkey burger, whole grain bun, 1 slice mozzarella cheese, green beans
Snack: apple + 1 tbsp almond butter
This “clean eating” plan is derived from a nutritionist who’s published a cookbook with recipes for the gymnast. This individual doesn’t believe in Gatorade as it’s “toxic” and “gymnast’s don’t sweat” which is a) untrue and b) unfounded.
Don’t kid yourself that you *actually* would enjoy this kind of meal plan. This form of “clean eating” is usally coupled with a “cheat day” once a week which can lead to an all-out-binge fest and certainly exacerbate the binge-restrict cycle and damage one’s relationship with food and their body. The most glaring part of this kind of plan is that there are no normal “meals”. No pizza, no lasagna, no casseroles, no “mixed meals” where you can’t necessarily distinguish every single ingredient and it’s proportion. “Mixed meals” are normal. Sometimes you eat grilled chicken, a starch, a veggie, etc at dinner but other times it’s a “mixed meal” that has most of the food groups but in varying proportions.
The other issue with this plan is it’s VERY reminiscent of the diets of gymnasts who I’ve worked with that are struggling with eating disorders like anorexia, orthorexia, or binge eating disorder. If this kind of diet is not appropriate for them, it’s not appropriate for anyone else.
Satisfaction is a huge part of nutrition and one’s ability to adhere to their diet. Many an individual who has “eaten clean” will tell you they struggling with eating “just one” of something (cookie, handful chips, etc), so they’re either “on plan, or off plan”.
This plan is short on a lot of things. This is eucaloric to the first plan (same calories), but there is not enough carbohydrate to fuel the gymnast. This could be remedied by adding more into the plan, but I just took some of the meal/snack ideas that said nutritionist is telling gymnasts to blindly follow. This plan is lacking in a lot of calcium which is essential for bone health, iron which is essential for aerobic fitness and red blood cell health, as well as folate. Interestingly, it has a higher omega 6: omega 3 ratio which is an indication of inflammatory status of a diet; 5:1 when it should be closer to 2:1. I included salmon in both diets.
The bottom line is that all calories count and it’s not just about eating clean or not. You need to be intentional with getting enough nutrition (calories, carbs, fat, protein) as well as micronutrients (vitamins/minerals), and antioxidants to support the high level gymnast’s training, performance, and recovery.
It’s also about the intention behind your food choices and the thoughts and behaviors that accompany them. Guilt, shame, and anxiety over food has no place in the diet.
Including foods that taste good and your gymnasts loves is a much more sustainable approach to the bodybuilder-esqe Tupperware meal plan that is not representative of reality nor normal eating. A trained RDN can help you or your athletes learn to fuel their bodies for elite performance while respecting preferences and goals.
When I work with high level gymnasts I teach them to fuel their bodies “whenever, wherever, and with whatever”. Yes, you need to be intentional about keeping nutritious foods in the home (that’s the 80-90%) but the rest we can align with your preferences, lifestyle, etc. True “balance” is not just having a cheat day once a week or having a cookie or pastry here and there with your “clean eating plan”.
If you’re wanting to learn more about how you or your gymnast can find food freedom + elite performance, join my NEW free Masterclass happening on August 23rd, 25th, or 27th. Just click below to register and I’ll see you there!