“Superfoods”. I can imagine you have heard of these foods more times than you can count. Whether it is in a magazine, a grocery store, or a talk show, superfoods are put on a pedestal because people believe they will cure all of their health-related problems.
In reality, the title of “superfoods” is a buzz word used as a marketing strategy to drive purchasing behavior. Unlike what you hear on the latest talk show or read in a trendy magazine, these foods are not magical and do not have a superpower to make everything better. There is, in fact, no single nutrient that has the capability to embody this idea of a “magical cure”.
In regards to your gymnasts, there are several nutritional priorities that must come first before pushing the idea of adding more superfoods to their diet.
1. Adequate Overall Energy Intake
If your gymnast is not consuming enough calories to support her training, development, recovery, and performance, it DOES NOT MATTER what kinds of foods she consumes. When her body is simply not getting its energy needs met, it does not matter what type of food she intakes because it does not have the building blocks to repair, recover, and adapt to training.
The best way to know if your gymnast is meeting her nutritional needs it to meet with a dietician who can further assess her nutrition intake in the context of her training, energy needs, etc.
2. Proper Distribution of Macronutrients
Your gymnast may be meeting her energy, (calorie), needs however if she is eating a lot of one macronutrient and none of another this can be of detriment to her training. Macronutrients, otherwise known as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, are essential to be consumed in their correct proportions for optimal training. Most people think gymnasts do not need a lot of carbohydrate and that they fear they are “fattening”. It needs to be said that no “one food” is inherently “fattening” or can cause weight gain. It’s all about context and where someone’s intake is relative to their needs. Gymnastics is a high-intensity, anaerobic sport that relies on carbohydrate. Gymnasts need 5-6+ g/kg day of carbohydrate to maintain energy throughout 15-20+ hours of gymnastics per week.
That being said, if your gymnast is cutting out carbs or not eating enough, it will not matter what “superfoods” you are feeding her because her body’s stores of these nutrients are imbalanced. She will not have enough energy (carbs) to draw from during a high intensity, 3+ hour workout and no amount of vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants will solve this energy deficiency.
This lack of carbohydrate (and often too much protein/fat in it’s place) is why so many gymnasts are exhausted all the time, struggle with endurance, and can’t seem to make it through 4+ hour workouts at high levels of gymnastics (optionals, elite, NCAA).
3. Proper Fueling and Hydration
These three categories make up the foundation of the performance nutrition strategy. Your gymnast needs to be eating enough, have the proper distribution of macronutrients, and be eating the right foods at the right time to support optimal performance in training.
Then and only then can you begin to focus on superfoods or other “nutrient dense foods” that may have some additional benefits like fighting inflammation and enhancing recovery.
Now, what even is a superfood?
A superfood is a nutrient rich food that is considered to be beneficial for health and well-being. Many consider food with high levels of antioxidants to fall under this category. Antioxidants are a compound that protects the body from naturally occurring oxidation and inflammation. Now, all of our bodies undergo oxidation on a daily basis, however it is increased in high level gymnasts. Hence, why the antioxidants are beneficial because they reduce some of the more harmful byproducts that come from this reaction.
Examples of superfoods:
- Green tea
It is important to remember that there is no medical definition for a superfood. Society tends to place the “superfood” label on foods high in omega-3, antioxidants, calcium, etc. However, these are just opinions. “The Top 10 Superfoods” list you see in a magazine is not based in fact, but on people’s opinions on which foods are high in specific vitamins/minerals.
In addition, the body cannot survive on superfoods alone. Humans are meant to eat a variety of foods to make sure they receive enough of each nutrient, not just the ones in superfoods. It not wrong to feed your athlete some of these nutrient dense foods, as they do have increased levels of inflammation, as long as they are balancing it with other varieties of food groups. Again, adequate nutrition is way more important than “what” you eat when it comes to ensuring the body has the proper building blocks to repair, recover, and adapt to training.
Another terms thrown around is “functional foods”. These foods contain ingredients that have health benefits that expand beyond their nutritional value and can often be found in supplements or added into foods. Fortification is one of the biggest examples of how these foods are created. You can see this in milk through the addition of vitamin D and A, as well as in cereal with the addition of iron, vitamin D, folic acid, and/or B12.
Oats are a great example of this. They contain a special fiber called beta-glucan, which has shown to reduce inflammation and aid heart health.
However, how much do these functional foods actually help?
When you see the red heart on the container of oats, it’s important to keep in mind that oats may lower cholesterol a little, which could help someone’s heart health. However, eating big bowls of oatmeal or Cheerios cereal is not going to cure your high cholesterol or prevent a stroke. The way marketing strategies are implemented in the U.S. often convinces you that specific foods have more power than they really do. The same thing goes for label claims like reduced fat, low sugar, high protein, etc.
A good example of this is “reduced fat peanut butter”. If you look at the nutrition label, the amount of at removed of the product is so minimal that it has no real effect on the person consuming it. Therefore, it makes more sense to buy the regular kind of peanut butter that you and your gymnast feel like tastes the best. Also, you’ll often save money just buying the “regular” form of foods versus the “low sodium, lower sugar, etc”.
Some products with these claims could be of benefit, or just something you prefer. A good example of this is the Chobani Less Sugar Greek yogurt. This is a fruit blended Greek yogurt that just has “less” added sugar than regular. No artificial sweeteners, etc. To me, I like my yogurt a little less sweet and as a minimally active adult don’t necessarily need the added sugar. For a high level gymnast, the added sugar in a regular Greek yogurt is fine considering it just contributes to overall carbohydrate intake. It would also not be wrong for a high level gymnast to consume plain Greek yogurt and sweeten it themselves with something like honey, maple syrup, etc, but by the time they sweeten to taste the yogurt likely has just as much “added sugar” as if it was pre-sweetened.
Examples of functional foods
One of the things that allows marketing to lure people in is herbs and spices. One of the trends this year has been incorporating turmeric into lattes called “golden milk”. Turmeric is often touted for it’s anti-inflammatory properties that come from the compound curcumin (or curcuminoids) found in the turmeric.
These turmeric infused lattes are often advertised as “anti-inflammatory”. The sad reality is that the amount of turmeric you have to consume to significantly reduce inflammation is about 5 to 6 teaspoons, which is more than anyone would consume in a sitting. Even most turmeric supplements do not have the proper amount of curcumin to produce a real anti-inflammatory benefit, and even if it does there are digestibility issues with the curcumin that requires very special supplement preparation for it to be absorbed by the body instead of just excreted. These subtle issues with dose, digestion, and absorption are not advertised, thus it is important to understand the “context”.
Now, you may also go down the supplement section and see garlic capsules, turmeric capsules, and JuicePlus+ gummies. Logically, there is absolutely no way that eating 4 JuicePlus+ gummies a day is going to replace all of the vitamins and nutrients that you will get from eating real fruits and veggies. There are more than 20 published studies by JuicePlus+ that don’t amount to much. They are small studies that don’t show “clinically meaningful” changes in actual health outcomes.
Another issue with supplements is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like pharmecuticals. This means that there is no way to tell what is actually being put inside of these gummies/capsules or any other supplement you purchase. The substances can be old and not potent anymore and no one would even know. This is why dietitians support a “food first” approach and then careful supplementation when truly necessary with measurable outcomes.
It is important to eat the foods that are nutrient dense as well as the fun foods. Even though the “fun foods” may not be as nutritious, they do something for your soul. Food is social, cultural, and emotional and it is important to be able to share cookies with a friend, go out for ice cream, etc. Incorporating both types of foods will allow your gymnast to trust her body. She will be able to enjoy the foods she loves as well as balance it with all the more nutritious foods. Notice how I did not say “all the nutritious foods her body needs”. This language continues the narrative that your gymnast’s body only needs nutritious foods, when in fact it needs a balance of both.
Modified Functional Foods
Anything that is fortified falls under this category. Whether it is orange juice fortified with calcium or fortified cereal, this category covers the foods that have nutrients added to them. Again, these types of food are not necessary to spend extra money on. There is no need for high protein, high fiber, bean pasta. If you are looking to add more fiber to the meal, add a fruit or a vegetable. If you need more protein, maybe add some chicken or tofu. There are other ways to add in these nutrients, which will create a balanced diet and help to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
- Superfoods are known as foods that contain extra nutrients that aid in our health and well-being.
- Priorities before introducing superfoods
- Adequate overall energy intake
- Proper distribution of macronutrients
- Proper fueling and hydration
- Examples of superfoods
- There is no medical definition for the term superfoods; hence it is important to be mindful when looking at lists of “Top Ten Superfoods”. These lists are just people’s opinions and they are not backed by research.
- Functional foods are foods that contain ingredients that have health benefits which expand beyond their nutritional value and can often be found in supplements or added into foods.
- Examples of functional foods
- Marketing does a very good job at making it seem like these foods are essential to cure any healthy issue we have. It is important to remember that the amount of added vitamin/mineral is so minuscule that it has a very limited effect on specific health issues like heart health.
- There is no need to buy reduced fat, low sugar, or high protein because they take out such little amounts that it truly does not make a difference in your overall health.
- Supplements are not regulated and therefore, can be risky to take. They can possibly contain substances that are old and not potent anymore.
- Unrealistic to get all your nutrition needs from a supplement.
- Modified Functional Foods are any foods that are fortified.
- Examples of modified functional foods
- Orange juice with calcium
- Fortified cereal
Overall, as long as most of the time you eat nutritionally dense foods, anti-inflammatory fats like salmon and avocado, whole grains, and proteins, it is perfectly ok to balance your diet out by enjoying foods that make you feel good and that you enjoy (like cookies, candy, French fries, etc). Even if these foods are not necessarily as nutrient dense as something like salmon may be, it is very important to take satisfaction into account as well. Your body is a well-oiled machine and it knows how to process all kinds of food, so it is ok to eat a balance of nutritious foods and fun foods. Fun foods are there to make your soul feel good and when there is a restriction of them, you tend to increase the risk of like binging and then restricting those foods.
If you have any questions or would like to purchase the Balanced Gymnast Meal Plan, feel free to contact me!