Gymnastics Diet Culture

Gymnastics is a micro culture of our larger #dietculture. We live in a world that is consumed by thinness and health, and gymnastics is a more concentrated environment of our larger culture. 

So much of what our culture accepts as “normal eating” is in fact abnormal and disordered. This is even more so true for the sport of gymnastics.

So many of us former gymnasts, parents, and coaches are blind to #dietculture.

Hopefully this article can help you understand the “nutrition noise” you hear that is harmful and untrue, and what you can do to help your gymnast have a healthy relationship with food and her body. 

What are “food issues”?

When we describe “food issues” which is quite a loose and casual term, we have to first understand what normal eating is.

Normal eating is:
-Being able to eat when hungry, stop when full

-Not feeling guilt, shame, or anxiety about food or food choices

-Not having to count, track everything you eat

-Not having to step on the scale each day to determine your food intake and exercise

-Being able to give some thought to food and honor your health needs while not getting caught up in rigid or restrictive behaviors that cause you to struggle

Leaving cookies on the plate because you know you can have more tomorrow, and the next day, etc

-Is flexible, it takes the time it needs for planning and preparation but doesn’t rule your life and is adaptable to different schedules, environments, etc.

What is “Diet culture”?

We live in a “dieting culture”. Everyday we’re bombarded with messages about food, thinness, health, and “wellness” that promote weight stigma and non-evidence-based nutrition that often leads to disordered eating.

Per Christy Harrison MPH, RDN, CDN, diet culture is a system of beliefs that:

  • Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health”

You may wrestle with many of these tenants and that’s OK. It’s natural to be able to notice your thoughts and beliefs are not congruent with what you want, yet have a hard time letting them go. Many gymnasts wrestle with the ideas around body diversity, etc as they learn to live in food freedom. 

What are the effects of diet culture in our sport?

Diet culture in gymnastics specifically promotes faulty nutrition information like:

Unrealistic/impossible expectations for the gymnast body

  • Delayed puberty as “normal”
  • “Lighter girls fly higher”
  • Misguided focus on aesthetic > performance leading to suboptimal performance, poor sport duration, and increased injuries

Lifetime struggles with food + body for the retired gymnast

What are common things parents and coaches do that unknowingly (or knowingly) cause their gymnasts to struggle?

  • Making Food and Body Comments: Positive or negative, you cannot control how these comments are taken by the recipient. The best policy is what I call #nobodytalk. This is hard, as many of us grew up and were conditioned to give and receive comments based on our eating and appearance, but these can be very harmful especially to the individual who is struggling. Food and body image struggles are often very hidden and secretive, so don’t just assume because you don’t think your athlete is struggling that they’re OK.
  • Putting your gymnast on a diet. I cannot tell you how many high-level (level 10, D1 scholarship, elite) gymnasts who have had traumatic dieting history that was implemented by their parents and coaches. I know that most all of these parents and coaches are just trying to help their athlete “perform better” or “reach their goals”, but you are unqualified to try and regulate/control your teen athlete’s nutrition. This not only will ruin your gymnast’s relationship with food and her body, but also damage trust between parent and coach. No high-level gymnast belongs on a 1200-1400 calorie diet while training 20+ hours a week, so it’s no wonder that eventually these athletes come to me totally exhausted and injured and wonder what the problem is.
  • Calling foods “good and bad”. Food is not moral. Food is food. Yes, there are nutritional differences between foods in terms of what we call “nutrient density” (vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, etc), but all foods can fit in the gymnast’s diet. Food is not magical. There is not food on earth that can magically cause weight gain in and of itself. Weight gain comes from a caloric surplus overtime, but on the opposite end we see disfavorable body composition changes in the athlete who’s suffering from RED-S due to intentional or unintentional underfueling.

What are preventative things you can do as a parent from an early age to help your gymnast be confident with food and her body?

If your gymnast is struggling to any degree, seek help for them. Food and body concerns are always much deeper than they appear due to their sensitive nature. Supporting your athletes through difficult times of growth and development (puberty) is what they need from you. Allowing their body to grow and develop into what it needs to be according to their genetics is what they need from you. Knowing that their worth is not based on their performance or body is also what they need from you as a parent and coach.

As always, feel free to reach out if your gymnast is struggling or you want to take a proactive approach to helping them learn to fuel for optimal performance and longevity in the sport.