Gymnastics is a sport aimed at perfection. Junior Olympic Women’s Gymnastics scoring starts from a perfect 10.0 and can only go down from there. Gymnasts practice hours upon hours in order to execute every skill, every routine…perfectly.
So often this aim at perfection translates into all the other areas of life: nutrition, school, self-care (or lack of), etc. This is not always a positive thing. Sure, gymnastics developed a work ethic and persistence that has carried me through life and made me very successful in both my academic and professional careers. I would not have traded the experience for the world.
But, it has also taken years of “unlearning” in terms of perfectionist behaviors in regards to nutrition and self-care that have not contributed to health or success.
As a pediatric/adolescent registered dietitian sports nutritionist and JO/NCAA gymnastics judge, I’ve learned a few things about striving for perfection.
- Being “perfect” with nutrition is impossible, and I’d argue unhealthy/unsustainable.
If you tell a gymnast they must “eat clean” and never touch, sugar, salt, gluten, or added “unhealthy” fats, they are likely to follow this instruction to a “T”. This dichotomous, “black or white”, thinking often backfires and leads to binging, overeating, food sneaking, etc. Why? Because it’s human nature to like sweet, savory, umami foods that current “nutrition gurus” say will make you “fat”. This is untrue unless you were to overeat a certain food which then put you in a caloric surplus FOR A PERIOD OF TIME. Not one meal, not one day, etc. These days, these same “gurus” like to argue that “not all calories are the same”.
At a fundamental level, a calorie is a calorie. Sure, different macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat) will have differing “thermic effects” or energy costs (calorie burn) during digestion. But, don’t get caught up on this small part of metabolism. Yes, I support adequate protein at meals to support satiety and muscular recovery/adaptation, but I’m not overly concerned about “calorie burn” from protein digestion.
- A more “moderate diet” that includes #allfoodsfit can be more productive than a strict meal plan.
Let’s talk about “cheat days”. I don’t prescribe meal plans nor designate cheat days because this designates that food is moral (good or bad) and “cheating” never ends well. Cheat days often end up with a huge caloric surplus that is hard to redistribute. Translation: Eating enough every day and enjoying the foods (in moderation) that you love regardless of their “nutrient density” can allow you to “stick” to the 80% (lean protein, veggies, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains/starches…aka “clean” foods) which is the greater determining factor in your results.
I know a lot of athletes and former teammates that have now “ballooned” into much larger bodies than they’d like (which are not necessarily in line with their set-point/genetics). Yes, bodies will change post-sport, but the changes should not be 50-100+ lbs drastic unless you were a pre-pubescent, very underweight athlete. For the athlete that retires by high school or college, I’d expect no more than 5-10 lbs of weight gain within the first year of retirement if they had been fueling themselves appropriately and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. Not that it matters, but my body weighs the same as it did senior year in high school though my body composition is different. It’s “softer”, aka more fat tissue and less muscle, but that’s normal and expected considering I’m an adult woman now of child-bearing age and don’t workout 20+ hours a week. My body has weighed 20-30 lbs more than it does now when I was dieting and trying to “eat clean” and “get lean” because the approach I took caused extreme fluctuations in eating (starve/binge cycle) that led to me being in a caloric surplus overtime.
If I knew then what I know now about nutrition and body change, I’d tell my 18 year old retired-gymnastics self that by maintain normal eating patterns, enjoying “fun foods”, and easing into a sustainable/moderate approach to exercise I was going to gain much less weight than if I tried to diet and white-knuckle my way to maintain my “gymnast body”.
- Training while ill or injured is almost always counterproductive. I’m not talking about modified training that you are cleared to participate in while avoiding the injured area. I’m talking about continuing to practice on injuries or during illness. I one time had a huge rip on my palm from the uneven bars that got super infected and my parents took me to the doctor. Like any well-trained physician, my doctor recommended I take some time off bars to let the infected rip heal. I looked at her like she was crazy, as if my 15-year-old self “knew best” and was just convinced I couldn’t take off a day of training or I’d “lose all my fitness/skills”. Not true. I wasted more time trying to train bars on an infected, injured hand than if I had taken a week or so off to allow the area to heal. This same scenario can be applied to just about every other injury I ever had, and they all took way longer to heal than they should because I was afraid to speak up about hurting as I didn’t want to appear “weak”. Now, when I’m sick or injured, I rest. I’ve learned a little since then and now understand that by resting “now”, I’ll be back to full strength quicker. Oh the things you learn with age…
I’ve helped hundreds of clients and athletes achieve the mental peace, food freedom, and health/goals they desire by helping them learn to “moderate” their nutrition. I purposely prescribe parents and clients to include “fun foods” in a reasonable amount (1-2 per day or ~10-20% of the time) to help them stay sane and enjoy the rest of their nutrition. It can be scary to add in these foods that society tells us are “bad’ or “dirty”, but that’s life. So much of what we should be doing for progress is counter intuitive to what we think we should do, especially for the perfectionist. What’s the smallest step you can take towards moderation? Do that.
If you have questions or need 1:1 help, please don’t hesitate to reach out here.