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.
I hate to break it to you, but this is most certainly false. High-level gymnasts, parents, and their coaches are constantly inundated with information regarding their diet. Unfortunately, most of that content is just plain wrong, aka gymnastics nutrition myths. There is a surplus of myths floating around out there regarding the best nutrition for a high-level gymnast. And for whatever reason, these myths are repeated and repeated until everyone just accepts them as fact.
It’s no wonder we see gymnasts with injuries that won’t heal, utter exhaustion, severe under fueling, and ultimately quitting the sport they once loved. I know that was my personal experience and the experience of way too many high-level gymnasts. But it doesn’t have to be that way for your gymnast.
I’ve rounded up the top 10 myths that we’re addressing every day here at the Gymnast Nutritionist®. You’ll notice that many of these have taken up permanent residency in #dietculture. However, these myths become even more dangerous to the high-level gymnast when they prevent her from getting the adequate nutrition she needs.
And I want to note, we could dedicate entire articles to each of these myths due to the vast degree of nuance and scientific explanation that is required. As a former gymnast, now pediatric/adolescent sports dietitian nutritionist, it took me years to get over some of these myths that I held closely as beliefs when I was a gymnast. So, if some of these are rather triggering to you, just know you’re not alone and I encourage you to keep an open mind for the sake of your gymnast.
Say it with me. “Carbohydrates fuel the gymnast”. Louder for those in the back.
Carbohydrate to performance nutrition is like the handstand to gymnastics. You need it. Period.
Gymnastics is an anaerobic, high-intensity sport. In plain English, this means gymnastics training is fueled predominately by carbohydrate and thus a significant portion of a gymnast’s meal/snacks should be carbohydrate. Unfortunately due to diet culture and all sorts of myths about carbohydrates being “fattening, inflammatory, etc”…a lot of gymnasts undereat this main food group and it hinders their performance.
Sugar gets a bad rap even more so than general carbohydrate. But the bottom line is ALL carbohydrates break down into sugar: glucose, fructose, or galactose. And EVERY cell in the body uses glucose to make ATP (energy). Does sugar cause “more weight gain than any other food? Nope! No one food is magical and somehow stored immediately as fat. It’s all about context and energy needs.
To put it simply, sugar is 4 calories per gram. Do you know what else is 4 calories per gram? Protein. So yes, sugar can cause weight gain, but then so can protein. And so an everything else (fat, alcohol) if consumed in large excess overtime. Most individuals who struggle with sugar have erratic meal patterns or are binging due to these meal patterns or deprivation (aka, dieting, over-restriction). These “binging” episodes can push them into a caloric surplus and it’s not solely sugar’s fault. Click here to read more about sugar and how to relax around it.
This is another myth that should have died after the 90s. But alas, gymnasts are still told to eat low-fat foods, and foods high in fat will “turn to fat” on their bodies, which again is just not true.
No one food can cause weight gain (or weight loss) in and of itself. In a very over-simplified way, calories do matter and yet it’s a lot more complex than “calories in, calories out”.
This has to be true, right? Just look at the shelves at grocery stores. All those workout bars are predominately protein-based. And that’s what the coach is telling your gymnast to bring to practice, so where’s the fallacy? After all, if #dietculture teaches us “carbs make you fat” and “fat makes you fat” that only leaves one thing left, protein.
This is when I say, remember what is written about carbohydrates above? Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport. Protein is not the body’s preference when it comes to fueling energy needs. Yes, amino acids from protein breakdown can be used for fuel, but the body conserves at all costs. During a 4-5 hour practice, protein is not going to give the gymnast the energy she needs for those big skills. It breaks down too slowly to provide any energy benefit during practice. Here’s a great breakdown of why protein IS an important macronutrient in the gymnast’s diet, but why it should not be used to fuel her during workouts.
Oh boy is this one controversial. I’ve written a two-part series on why gymnasts need more than just water you can check out here and here. Why two different blogs? Because it really is more than just H2O for the high-level gymnast.
After 2 hours of exercise, more than just water is often needed for optimal hydration. The goal of fluid replacement is to use a fluid that closely matches the blood’s electrolyte profile. The main electrolytes in sweat are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Gatorade was specifically designed to create a fluid that so closely matches the needed electrolyte profile. The sugar (carbohydrate) allows better fluid absorption as well as contributes to overall fueling.
Water Only: 1-2 hour workouts or 3+ hour workouts with adequate carbohydrate and sodium from food (tough at high levels of gymnastics)
Sports drink: Replace what the body uses~ 15-45g carb per hour equals 8-24 oz sports drink. Use only during practice (or possibly recovery, like for two-a-day workouts; not just “drinking for fun”)
Food vs sports drink: more vitamins, minerals, fiber, overall “nutrition”
I have to wonder…who came up with the idea that at 7 pm, 500 calories equal 500 calories…but at 8 pm, 500 calories equals 1,838,573 calories? Seems crazy right? But this is one gymnastics nutrition myth (and rampant in #dietculture) that gained traction and ended up terrifying people about eating late.
But what happens when your gymnast has practice from 5 to 9 pm? Do you just not feed her dinner out of fear that the calories double after hours? Do you send her to bed with just a salad and a protein bar thinking anything else will make her wake up with an extra pound or two?
I think the myth that eating late at night causes weight gain stems from over-generalized advice geared to busy, sedentary, adults with erratic meal patterns who may tend to overeat (even binge) at night due to hunger, etc.
This is 100% not applicable to a gymnast, although a lot of gymnasts DO under fuel during the day and are then ravenous after a workout. It’s much better for performance and body composition to have food distributed throughout the day, fueling in and around workouts for optimal body composition and performance.
Clean eating gets a lot of press time these days. It sure sounds good. Eating clean must be healthy, and being healthy is what makes you a better gymnast, right?
Unfortunately, fueling for performance just isn’t as simple as a catchy phrase like that. Especially when “clean eating” is arbitrary. What does it even mean? No sugar? No salt? Nothing processed?
The reality is you can “eat clean” AND: undereat, overeat or simply not eat the proper macronutrients to support high-level training. And sadly, for many gymnasts, clean eating leads to overeating, sneaking, or binging. The exact opposite of a parent’s goal when they attempt to eat clean.
All foods can fit in the high-level gymnast’s diet. If you think of food on a range of less nutritious to more nutritious, we can remove the “good” or “bad” labels that instill food with this mystical superpower.
Language matters and calling the less nutritious food “junk food” can set up your gymnast to feel guilt/shame about eating. Which then can lead to the binge eating, overeating, and sneaking. Call foods what they are: chips, cookies, etc vs “bad foods” or “junk foods”.
Instead of making them off-limits or buying into this gymnastics nutrition myth, make these foods more “neutral” by having them frequently. They add satisfaction to meals/snacks. Then you can focus on ADDING the more nutritious foods in the diet. Because restriction always backfires and leads to overeating. Read more about cleaning eating and the high-level gymnast here.
This myth has completely taken root in gymnastics culture to the point where many gymnasts who DO get their period, think something is wrong with them. Coaches, parents, even friends, and family just expect these hard-working athletes to have a delayed period. But please hear this: there are serious, long-lasting effects from amenorrhea. Especially when due to inadequate energy availability (aka lack of nutrition).
The first and foremost is poor bone mineralization; the body will likely not have adequate estrogen to keep the process of bone formation and breakdown in balance. This imbalance due to lack of estrogen weakens and increases susceptibility to fracture. Hard-to-heal stress fractures in the back, hips, pelvis and feet are often results of inadequate energy availability leading to poor bone mineralization. This can even be classified as osteopenia or worse, osteoporosis. Taking all the calcium and vitamin D in the world will not strengthen the bones in this situation; the body needs adequate calories, protein, carbs, and fats to heal.
More importantly, females develop the majority of their peak bone mass by age 18. The bones will have reached their maximum strength and density into their early to mid-twenties. How you treat your body during your teen years can majorly impact the rest of your life. It is the parents’ job to ensure their child/teen is meeting their nutritional needs. Read more here.
Here’s another one of those sayings that continues to circulate throughout gymnastics culture. The tiny gymnasts, the ones that look like pre-pubescent girls, are the standard to which all other gymnasts are held to. Not only is this unhealthy and dangerous, it’s not even scientifically accurate.
If you follow Dave Tilly’s research (and if you don’t already, you should) you’ll see how he breaks down how power is generated. And yes, you need power to “fly higher”. When an athlete ignores the gymnastics nutrition myths and actually fuels well, they are able to train hard, which leads to an optimized power to body ratio. Building upon that, the joints are protected because more dynamic force is absorbed over passive joints/ligaments. All leading to improved body composition which is actually what makes your gymnast fly higher.
Body diversity is something that’s important to recognize and normalize. Your gymnast doesn’t get to choose her body type and she needs to work with what she’s got. Some gymnasts are longer and leaner, others are shorter and denser. Either type and everything in between is just fine.
It’s also important to recognize that successful gymnasts, especially collegiate gymnasts, are no longer little girls. Most of them have gone through puberty, have breasts/hips, and don’t look like little girls anymore which would not be normal for a 16-18 year old or older.
Let’s break down what “bloating” is. Bloating can be abdominal distention after food/fluids (which is completely normal). Or it can be abdominal distention/fullness/discomfort due to intestinal contents and possible slow transit (common in RED-S).
Athletes need more salt (sodium) than non-athletes. So, while salt and carbohydrate do attract water, when consumed consistently, it has a negligible effect. It is the large swings in the diet (i.e. cheat days, binge eating, etc.) that cause big fluxes in water. More consistent nutrition that is ultimately sustainable will equal less flux.
You’ve probably read about this one or heard it being touted by some social media fitness “gurus”. They sell it as a quicker way to burn calories and or body fat. But here’s the thing, fasted workouts OXIDIZES more fat and fat oxidation does not equal fat burning.
What does a fasted workout lead to? Unfortunately, it means less performance which in turn equals less energy expended.
In addition, a high-level gymnast who is training for 4-5+ hours, 5 days a week, does not need to be focusing on burning calories during her training. She’s there training SKILLS and the ENDURANCE she needs for routines. In other words, she needs as much fuel as possible. Not just to get her through those workouts, but to have the energy, strength, and power she needs for high levels of performance.
If you’re following any of these gymnastics nutrition myths, unfortunately, you may have to answer true to this final question. But that doesn’t have to be the case long term.
There is a lot of nutrition “noise” out there. And while our culture of google has made finding information much easier, it also makes for murky waters when figuring out what actually applies to your high-level gymnast.
The research is often cherry-picked by those “gurus” who have an angle. Or maybe a specific diet works for you so the logical next step is to apply it to your gymnast’s nutrition. But please hear me, just because it works for you, doesn’t make it appropriate for your high-level gymnast.
If you need more help with navigating gymnastics nutrition myths or support in breaking the cycles the myths perpetuate, please check out The Balanced Gymnast® Program. Our 3-month nutrition coaching program is for parents of gymnasts in levels 5-10 and will teach you how to fuel your gymnast for peak performance + longevity in the sport. Plus optional 1:1 upgrade sessions.