Do you ever worry that you’re not feeding your high level gymnast the right foods for optimal performance? Do you feel like a short order cook trying to meet the entire family’s nutritional needs? Do you watch your gymnast struggle through practice and complain of exhaustion, yet feel at loss for what else to do to help them? Has your gymnast lost her period or hasn’t gotten it by 16 years old, and you’re concerned her nutrition/training has something to do with the issue?
If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you’re not alone.
Optimal Performance Starts in the Home
Fueling and nourishing your children and teens is a hard job. Fueling the high level gymnast who’s training 20+ hours a week aside from all other commitments and activities is even harder, especially in a sport with a lot of myths and misguided advice around nutrition.
A lot of gymnasts experience what I term “unintentional underfueling” which results in delayed growth, development, compromised bone density, and suboptimal performance/recovery (i.e., more injuries, slow to heal injuries, etc). This issue stems from the fact that high level gymnasts are working out an incredible amount of time for their age and aren’t matching their nutrition to the energy expenditure.
Aside from unintentional underfueling, nutrition is so complicated due to the media that everyone wants a list of “good and bad foods” for their gymnast athlete to follow. This oversimplification of nutrition leads to distorted food relationships and a nightmare to prepare food for the entire family.
Optimal child feeding and nourishment begins within the family unit which can be very complicated today. Homes are broken, parents are busy running other children to activities, and the “family meal” is becoming something of yesteryear. It is too easy to stop through the drive-thru most nights of the week which doesn’t always provide the most nutritious food options. We know that sitting down to family dinner 3-5 times per week makes a huge impact on child health, specifically in the prevention of childhood and adult obesity. The fact is, most fast food items tend to have way more salt/sugar/fat than you would normally add if preparing at home which could eventually tip the energy balance scale in certain situations.
Fueling and Nourishing the Gymnast
The “gymnast body” begins in the home. All children and adolescents need regularly scheduled meals/snacks to help them develop appropriate appetite regulation. Children do well with structure, but busy schedules filled with multiple extracurricular activities make planning and scheduling difficult but not impossible.
- This could look like not letting your teen gymnast skip breakfast because they “want to sleep in” or “need more time to do their makeup” in the morning.
- This also looks like intervening appropriately, i.e. seeking professional help from a pediatric sports dietitian and pediatrician when the gymnast starts skipping meals, refusing to finish food portions they would normally finish (and is appropriate for their needs).
- This looks like continuing to serve vegetables at meals using authoritative feeding style or what we call “feeding with love and limits”.
- This looks like regularly serving “fun foods” like cookies, chips, etc. with meals so that no food is put on a pedestal and the gymnast doesn’t feel overly restricted which almost always ends up in overeating, food sneaking, and unwanted weight gain due to “fear of missing out”. And worse, if you guilt/shame the child for overeating rather than helping them address the cause of overeating, you are doing more harm than good.
Parents are the Food Gatekeepers
Not all, but most gymnasts tend to mature faster than other children who do not participate in the sports. Casual observation. I think this is largely in part to learning how to coach themselves, develop a work ethic, and find the courage to do “hard things”. But, deep down they are still little girls who need love, parenting, and help with their nutrition.
Sometimes parents take the “independence” too far. When I’m invited to lecture at gymnastics gyms, they often expect me to speak directly to the competitive team gymnasts the entire time with the parents in the room as if the gymnasts are fully responsible for making all of the food decisions (purchasing, preparation, etc.). Yes, I fully support that nutrition education should start early. Yes, I wholeheartedly support fostering independence in our children through teaching them to make healthful meals and snacks on their own. But the reality is they still need help as they are children and teens whose brains are not fully formed (pre-frontal cortex) which is involved in high level planning an decision making.
One of my favorite dietitians, Ellyn Satter, coined the “division of responsibility” which poses: ‘You’ as the parent are the gate keeper of the kitchen and choose the ‘what’—which I’d argue is a healthful balance of each food group (whole grains/starches, fruits/veggies, dairy, lean proteins, healthy fats and “fun foods”—about 10% of the food pantry) and the child chooses the “how much”.
Why putting your gymnast on a diet doesn't work
As a young (pudgy) gymnast I would sneak money from home (loose change I found around the house) to purchase bags of Reeses Pieces from the gym’s vending machine. First, we as a society need to address and encourage a healthier culture of snacks at our sports facilities and events (ahem, concession stands). But, if you look at the “why” of the food sneaking, it was because I felt deprived at home and was guilted for eating these things, so I felt the need to sneak them. I was 10 years old. And when I’d sneak the Reeses Pieces, I’d buy not one but two bags at a time because I feared getting caught and “never getting to eat them again”.
Why did I feel the need to sneak candy? If I could ask my 10 year old self I would, but based on my memories of the food environment I grew up in I’d venture to say that sweet treats were “too” off limits and I felt like when I got the chance to have them, it was going to be the last time and I needed to “eat all the food”. This is a very common behavior among families who are trying to implement a specific diet like Whole30 or “Clean Eating” in effort to attain better health. The sad reality is that dieting efforts often backfire.
How to help your gymnast learn to fuel and nourish her body for elite performance
So how do we start to shift the culture from “clean eating” and “good and bad foods” which almost always lead to a distorted relationship with food and tattered body image? I’d suggest the following:
Learn to “Food Parent” the Gymnast”. Mealtimes don’t have to be a battleground and you do not need to learn calculus to navigate the logistics of your gymnast’s meal/snack schedule.
Learn to build a solid nutrition foundation. Do you ever worry about what diet may be best for your gymnast, if they should be consuming sugar/gluten/dairy, or if you’re giving them the proper balance of nutrition? Even though gymnasts are high level athletes, they still struggle with picking eating, “sugar addiction”, and other issues that have a lot to do with the balance of meals/snacks and how they’re offered.
Develop a Performance Nutrition Strategy with Your Gymnast. Every gymnast should have a “Performance Nutrition Strategy” where they know exactly what and when they should be eating and drinking before/during/after practice to support optimal performance and recovery. Not fueling the workout is like walking out halfway through practice…you pay way too much tuition for that to happen.
Support your gymnast’s long-term health and longevity in the sport. For the female, a menstrual cycle is what’s called the “5th vital sign”. It is NOT normal for female gymnast to lose their periods or not get one by the age of 16, despite what you may have been told by doctors, coaches, etc. You need to advocate for your gymnast’s health and ensure her body is getting what it needs to protect future bone health, heart health, performance, and fertility.
Do you want to finally feel confident in how to fuel and nourish your gymnast?
If any of these issues seem at play for you or your gymnast, I invite you to hop on my waitlist for The Balanced Gymnast Method™ course.
This is an in-depth self-paced online course for parents of gymnast, both high level gymnasts and younger gymnasts with big dreams.
This course will teach you how to fuel your gymnast day in, day out and help build a solid foundation for a healthy relationship with food + body.