Learn to fuel the gymnast for optimal performance and longevity in the sport.
Learn how to fuel your gymnast so that you can avoid the top 3 major nutrition mistakes that keep most gymnasts stuck, struggling, and injured.
Trying to execute simple meal planning for your gymnast… along with meals that everyone in the family enjoys and that can be made in a timely fashion, is a challenge that I’m sure you all face. Do you pick this recipe because it’s what your daughter’s coaches say she should eat? Do you make your other child’s favorite meal, even though it is not enough fuel for your gymnast? Should you make something super easy and convenient that does not meet her nutritional needs? All of these are questions are SO NORMAL when you are trying to meal plan and fuel a high-level gymnast.
To help you fuel your athlete properly (while still incorporating the foods they love) let’s look at a few important topics that will help you achieve that goal.
There are often two sides people veer to in meal planning for their gymnast. One side is those who freestyle their meals/snacks every day. Their love language is providing their families with delicious food every single day. The other side, which most busy parents lean towards, is meal prepping. These parents do not have time to go to the grocery store every day. So they pre-plan all their meals out for the week. This method often leads to them eating the same thing a few nights a week due to a lack of time to prepare new recipes each day.
Creating a loose meal plan helps meet the grey between these two black and white sides. Instead of having specific recipes that you eat multiple times that week, a loose meal plan allows you to mix and match your meals throughout the week. Like most parents, you probably don’t have time to cook a gourmet meal each night. Creating a loose guideline of specific foods that can easily be thrown into multiple different meals is a recipe for success.
This loose guideline allows for flexibility throughout the week. It will allow you to wake up in the morning, decide what you or the family wants for dinner, and pick out of those recipes/takeout options from what you already pre-determined for the week. You know you already have those ingredients on hand. Meal planning does not have to be rigid. It can be a loose roadmap to prepare food that you want or have time to cook that day.
An example of this would be if you have chicken for dinner one night. Buy a bit extra so that it can be repurposed throughout the week in another meal or someone’s lunch. A lot of people balk at leftovers. However, these leftovers are not the kind where you eat the same meal over and over again. The extra chicken can be repurposed by going into a quesadilla, fried rice, or a salad. This allows for a variety of flavors to eat throughout the week. The leftovers can also be used to make lunches the next day so that your gymnast is not getting bored of turkey sandwiches all week.
Once you plan out four to five recipes for the week, you can easily make one night something like homemade pizza night and order takeout for the other. The idea of ordering take-out often seems daunting as many of you have been told it is unhealthy and bad for your gymnast. However, fueling is all about balance. There is nothing wrong with having takeout once or twice a week. You can easily add a veggie or salad to round out the takeout meal which is often lacking in the veggie department.
You don’t have to live in the extremes when it comes to getting dinner on the table. Either “gourmet meal” or “fast food” doesn’t have to be your only option each week. Use the tips I listed above to create your loose “meal plan” for your gymnast and family.
Breakfast is an essential meal for a high-level gymnast. It gets them out of an energy/protein deficit which occurs overnight, while the body tries to repair and heal. Breakfast also signals to the brain “there’s food”. If your gymnast skips breakfast, you probably notice her wanting to “eat all the food” in the afternoon and evening. This makes sense, as her body is hungry, and the brain is just trying to protect itself. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to erratic meal patterns or even over-eating as they just get “too hungry” from starving all day.
For breakfasts, it is ideal to come up with two or three options that can be mixed and matched.
Here are some options of carbs, proteins, fats, and dairy that you can implement into your athlete’s breakfasts.
It’s important to have a breakfast with all the food groups as they each play a different role in the body.
Carbohydrate starts fueling the body for later workouts. Is the preferred fuel source of the brain and all cells in the body.
Protein contributes to the repair and growth of muscles and soft tissues. This is an ongoing process for all of us, but especially the high-level gymnast with lots of “wear and tear”.
Fats insulate the nerves and contribute to the building blocks of all hormones which are essential to life and health.
Dairy products (specifically for calcium) are essential as it takes a lot of calcium to support the teen female. A teen female needs 4-5 servings a day (average 200-300 mg calcium per serving, total 1300 mg per day) to keep the bones healthy and prevent the body from leaching calcium from the bones for other important processes. Most teen gymnasts do not get enough calcium, so it’s no wonder there’s a high number of stress fracture injuries that are related to low bone density from inadequate nutrition and/or calcium/vitamin D intake. Read more here.
Oftentimes, parents feel the need to feed their athletes “clean” or “healthy” meals like brown rice, broccoli, chicken, and maybe a bit of olive oil. If this dish were placed in front of your athlete, she may not be hungry anymore after consuming it, but she most likely would not be completely satisfied. This rigid control is why people are often found in the pantry after meals looking for something sweet or “something else”. Often it is not necessarily because they are hungry, but because they are not satiated. This type of rigid food behavior is also linked with a high incidence of disordered eating, which is very common amongst gymnasts.
Hunger and satisfaction are NOT the same thing. Although their hunger is gone, their body is still looking for something to satisfy its craving. This is often seen when a gymnast’s meal plan only includes “clean”, bland foods, like a turkey sandwich, apples, and carrots. Nine times out of ten, these athletes wind up in the pantry looking for something to satiate them. This is one of the big reasons I don’t support “clean eating”. First, it’s arbitrary, secondly, it doesn’t guarantee adequate fueling and lastly, it leaves you so unsatisfied that you end up eating more than you need (or just can’t “get full”).
These are what I call the “fun foods” and they are very important to provide satisfaction. They allow the gymnast to get all her nutrients in during the meal and be satiated by the fun food so that she can eat and move on. It reduces the chance of her making a trip to the pantry after the meal because her body’s cravings have already been satisfied. Sure, there are more nutritious options besides cookies and chips, but food is social, cultural, and emotional.
It’s more than OK to enjoy highly nutritious and less nutritious foods (that you love) as it all averages out to provide what the body needs. Something as simple as a cookie with lunch or a “fun cereal” with a breakfast parfait as part of the gymnast meal plan can go a long way towards satisfaction.
Defining whose role is what in terms of feeding and eating is known as the division of responsibility. In this picture, the parent’s role is to procure and prepare food. They also create a meal/snack plan or structure for the day that aligns with their gymnast’s hunger and fullness cues. For your athlete, they should have 3 meals a day and 2-3 snacks. Those snacks could be a mid-morning, an afternoon (likely the same as pre-workout), and possibly a post-dinner snack, but these are more modifiable per your gymnast’s preference.
The gymnast’s role is to decide what and how much food they want. I know many of you may be thinking “well my gymnast is only going to eat the carbs/desserts and not the vegetables/protein”. Here’s the thing… the real reason your gymnast only craves sweets is because she is likely being overly restricted. We all want what we can’t have, which is another reason why I don’t support “clean eating” or “food rules”.
Food is food, food is fuel. The body doesn’t know where food comes from, just that it provides the energy and building blocks it needs. Yes, a large part of the diet should be nutrient-dense grains, starches, protein, fruits/veggies, fats, dairy/calcium, etc. But there is still plenty of room for the “fun foods” and it’s so important for your gymnast to know how to enjoy these without feeling like she has to “eat them all” out of fear of never getting them again.
You probably notice when sweets are brought into the house, your gymnast tends to overindulge in them. This scenario occurs because her body has gone into the “scarcity mindset”. When foods are labeled as “off-limits”, “bad”, or are rarely in the house, your gymnast is automatically going to crave them. This is simply an innate human response. It is the same concept that happens when you tell your kid not to touch the hot stove. What do they do? They touch the hot stove. Big picture, when food is placed in a box that says do not touch, it is going to drive your gymnast to sneak it/hide it when you are not looking.
At the end of the day, this comes down to behavior. To repair this cycle of restricting and overcompensating, it is crucial to create a mindset of food security. This means always keeping the fun foods in your house and incorporating them into the gymnast’s meal plan. This will show your gymnast it is always available whenever she wants it, which will reduce her possessive urges to eat it whenever she gets the chance.
Keeping these fun foods in the house is essential to repairing her relationship with food. Also, keep in mind that calling these foods junk/bad foods connotes morality, which creates guilt and shame. Then comes the “what the heck” mindset. You might be asking yourself what does that mean? This mindset is one where when your athlete has eaten “too many” fun foods, she instantly is filled with guilt/shame. Now she feels like she dropped the ball, so might as well finish the rest. Cycling in and out of this mindset is much unhealthier than eating a few cookies and will lead to more health issues in the future. The goal is to have these foods in your house and be able to have them when you want, guilt-free, as well as walk past them when you are not in the mood.
When you have a picky eater, using forcing/coercing and the “one bite” rule is not super effective. It is super counterintuitive as many of you I’m sure grew up with parents who enforced these tactics. However, most kids when forced to do something they do not want to do, rebel in the complete opposite direction.
One thing to do if you have a picky eater is to make whatever they do not like taste good. You can add a sauce, cheese, or a dressing to the food to make it taste delicious. For example, if you are trying to feed your kid raw broccoli, it is probably not going to go over well. However, if you roast it and top it with bacon and cheese, it may go over a bit better.
You can also continue to serve these foods as “learning foods” and place them on their plate, but not force them to consume them. When they’re ready, they might try it. Even if you force them through the “one bite rule” or “you’re not leaving until you eat this”, they will not repeat the behavior when you aren’t forcing, so not much of a benefit to their health in the long run.
Loose meal planning is a great way to provide nutritionally dense meals that also offer a variety of flavors throughout the week.
Making a little bit extra of certain meals will make great leftovers that can be whipped up into a different meal the next day. Switching up flavor profiles will keep everyone pleased instead of being bored with what you normally cook.
This enjoyment of food will also provide satisfaction as well as hunger relief. Oftentimes, gymnasts eat their turkey sandwich, apples, and carrots and are not hungry after, but still want more food. This is because they are not satiated. The best way to provide that satiation is to add in fun food to their meal, leaving less of a chance for them to raid your pantry after.
Regarding whose role is who’s, the parent’s role is simply to procure and prepare the meals/snacks, while the kids get to choose what and how much they want.
When gymnasts are craving sweets all the time, it is most likely due to over restriction which breeds overcompensation. By always having these foods in the house, it will allow them to be food secure and less likely to sneak those foods.
Lastly, if you have a picky eater one of the best ways to help them is to make their food taste good. Instead of going for the raw broccoli, try cooking it with cheese and bacon. The more you push it down them, the more they will rebel. Making it taste yummy is the best way to reel them in.
Checkout The Balanced Gymnast® Program, our signature nutrition program for level 5-10/elite female gymnasts and parents. Inside this program I’ll teach you everything you need to know about fueling your gymnast for optimal performance and longevity in the sport. Learn more here.