gymnast diet low carb

“Should my gymnast be on a low carb diet to ‘stay trim’?”

Oh boy. Let’s unpack this question.

First off, in a sport that is so image-focused, we’ve all wondered if there’s a “magic bullet” out there that would allow gymnasts to stay lean with visible 6-packs and not an ounce of cellulite throughout their entire careers.

There’s also a ton of garbage (ahem, I mean “misguided advice”) by very prominent individuals in the gymnastics community that defy sound exercise metabolism and sports nutrition principles. Just because you are an Olympic gymnast who says “X” diet worked for you and that carbohydrates are “bad” doesn’t mean you can change what the research shows. And, when said expert calls themselves a nutrition expert yet their calling card is “I walk around with 8% bodyfat all year around”, I just can’t. 

We’re so obsessed with achieving a certain “look” that we forget about fueling the athlete. There is no research that supports optimal performance at a certain percentage bodyfat or aesthetic. Well-fueled athletes perform the best. Period.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but pre-pubertal little girls who are ripped to shreds (and may not be healthy, i.e. have inadequate energy availability) will one day grow up into beautiful young women who have breasts, hips, curves, and yes, likely come cellulite. This is normal and necessary for longevity in the sport and long-term health. And, in between the period between “little girl” and “young woman body” can be the difficult pre-teen phase where the body composition is shifting and the gymnast gets taller which can throw off timings, etc for a bit.

When “aesthetic” gets in the way of proper fueling

Just the other day I had the parents of a gymnast who’s struggling with anorexia/orthorexia ask me if fueling her body with enough nutrition to grow and develop (which she isn’t doing well) will allow her to keep her “visible 6-pack”. Reason #38574 why body comments (positive, negative, etc) aren’t appropriate.

Instead of worrying about this gymnast’s long-term bone health, longevity in the sport, and future fertility, we’re collectively more concerned about her aesthetic. This is not right. Putting a gymnast on a restrictive diet (or allowing her to maintain an inadequate diet) is only going to hurt her performance.

This gymnast is getting all sorts of body comments at the gym about how “ripped” and “strong” she is when the reality is that she is not growing or developing, and has been suffering from overuse and stress reaction injuries that weren’t healing due to inadequate energy availability (aka, not eating enough).

As a pediatric & adolescent sports dietitian nutritionist, I don’t really care what happens to her “visible 6-pack”. I want gymnast to fuel their bodies, grow and develop as they should, and be able to withstand the intense efforts required by the sport. I want her body to develop the best version of herself, not someone else’s vision of what she should be or someone she compares herself against.

There are long-term consequences for trying to maintain a level of leanness that is not natural for the body. You will not escape these consequences. If not now, then later.

Why I don’t use a specific “diet” with my gymnasts

I don’t like the word “diet”, especially for the gymnast, as it can imply restriction and deprivation. And, for every restriction (especially in the diet), there’s often a compensatory reaction. 

The first issue with choosing a low carb diet for the gymnast is this stems from a false belief that eliminating carbohydrates will lead to a better physique. Not true.

There have been multi-million dollar research studies of the highest quality done to see whether or not there is a “metabolic advantage” to low carbohydrate diets. What did they find? There’s no advantage. When talking weight loss (which is what most people want), any diet works that creates a caloric deficit, meaning you take in less than your body needs. This is an oversimplified explanation, but diet culture (the multi-billion dollar industry) leads us to believe there are “magical foods” that someone cause more weight/fat loss than other and this just isn’t true.

Obviously, there are health conditions that warrant specific “diets” like gluten free for Celiac disease or peanut-free for a peanut allergy. As a pediatric/adolescent dietitian, I am well-versed and sensitive to these dietary challenges and medically warranted restrictions. I help high level gymnast navigate food allergies and intolerances on a frequent basis, I’ve managed ketogenic diets for kids suffering from epilepsy, and have calculated more tube feeding diets than I’d care to admit.

But, what’s trendy these days are all sorts of diets that demonize this and that food group. This looks like restricting certain foods or food groups in hopes of improved performance and “health”. Diet culture LOVES to say “X food is the cause of all your problems, and if you just eliminate it (and buy our book, program, pill/potion), you’ll attain health and the body of your dreams”. This just isn’t true.

Here’s the deal…the most important (and often over-looked) aspects to a gymnast’s diet are adequate calories, carbohydrate to fuel performance, protein to support recovery and muscular adaptation, and proper vitamins/minerals to support high levels of stress and strain on the body.  

Yep, it’s not the gluten, it’s not the dairy, it’s not the sugar. 

there are health conditions that warrant specific “diets” like gluten free for Celiac disease or peanut-free for a peanut allergy. As a pediatric/adolescent dietitian, I am well-versed and sensitive to these dietary challenges and medically warranted restrictions. I help high level gymnast navigate food allergies and intolerances on a frequent basis, I’ve managed ketogenic diets for kids suffering from epilepsy, and have personally tried more diets than I’d care to admit.

But, what’s trendy these days are all sorts of diets that demonize this and that food group. This looks like restricting certain foods or food groups in hopes of improved performance and “health”. Diet culture LOVES to say “X food is the cause of all your problems, and if you just eliminate it (and buy our book, program, pill/potion), you’ll attain health and the body of your dreams”. This just isn’t true, and is also the exact reason why a lot of gyms don’t want to work with a sports nutritionist because every parent has their own diet philosophy, and the cognitive bias is extreme. I’d encourage you to read “The Gluten Lie” to learn how the field of nutrition takes on the same intensity and dissension as politics and religion. 

Here’s the deal…the most important (and often over-looked) aspects to a gymnast’s diet are adequate calories, carbohydrate to fuel performance, protein to support recovery and muscular adaptation, and proper vitamins/minerals to support high levels of stress and strain on the body.  

Yep, it’s not the gluten, it’s not the dairy, it’s not the sugar. 

But doesn’t a gymnast’s body composition matter?

In terms of your gymnast finding her best body composition, it’s about fueling the body so it can perform it’s best in the gym and reach it’s genetic potential.

As a collegiate and junior Olympic gymnastics judge, I can assure you there is NO deduction for “inadequate leanness” or “presence of cellulite”. Yet we live in a fatphobic world where coaches and judges alike like to try and score gymnasts who “look better” higher. This is so wrong and against our code of ethics.

Here’s where focusing just on a “look” goes wrong. SO many athletes I work with are underfueling and suffering the effects (frequent injuries, delayed menses/amenorrhea, burnout). They have read about their favorite athlete’s diet and decide that if that’s how X athlete eats, then that’s how they eat because “naturally” they would then also perform like said athlete. It makes perfect sense to the teenage (and some adults) brain, but it never works. 

I going to say it again…there are no extra points in gymnastics for a visible 6-pack or physique without an ounce of cellulite (which is NORMAL for 93% of women).

Focusing on keeping as lean/”trim” as possible will likely leave your gymnast underfueled, which will lead the body to want to “store” more of what’s consumed and not lead to the best body composition. This is protective. When underfueling, essentially starving if we’re being honest, the body senses “famine” and is going to slow down the metabolism (bad), decrease protein synthesis (bad), increase hunger hormones (not helpful, but protective), and store more of what’s consumed as it senses there is not a consistent fuel source to keep the body running at its peak level. This is why most weight loss diets fail and why I refuse to put a gymnast on a “diet”. I’m going to teach them to fuel their bodies and allow their body to reach it’s own genetic potential.

Multiple research studies show that athletes who underfuel have HIGHER levels of bodyfat, which is the exact opposite of what they were hoping for.

I have gymnasts trying to fuel 4+ hour intense practices with either NOTHING or a fat/protein source (nuts, protein bar, etc). Why you ask? Because they’ve been told carbs are BAD (untrue) and gymnasts should be “light and thin”. You can be at an optimal body composition while fueling your body. You will not be able to perform your best if you’re not fueling for the “work required” which looks like 15-30g+ of carbohydrate PER HOUR of practice. 

Why #dietculture ruins gymnast’s dreams

Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport that runs on carbohydrates. Fueling with a bunch of fat and protein before practice because you’re on a low carb diet is like putting diesel in your car. These are SLOW fuels and won’t do you much good in a high-intensity sport like gymnastics.

As gymnasts get older, they start learning more about nutrition from friends, parents, and social media. The advice they get is often incorrect and harmful to their performance, which results in them not improving as they should, getting injured, and usually burning out before they attain their goals in the sport. This misguided advice also often results in a distorted relationship with food and their bodies. Research shows that 50-65% of gymnasts experience disordered eating (or clinically diagnosable eating disorders) that haunt them for the rest of their lives. Was that 6-pack worth it? Not when you ruin your college gymnastics career or face future infertility, osteoporosis, and guilt/anxiety/shame around food and your body.

To help you navigate the influx of nutrition information you receive from coaches, friends, and social media, I have a free 5-day sample meal plan for you and your gymnast.

This plan is intended to give examples of what balanced meals and snacks should look like for the gymnast AND how they can include “fun foods” without guilt/shame or having to “earn them”. Food is food, carbs are carbs. Yes, this is an oversimplification (I have a Masters in Nutritional Sciences and did my thesis on carbohydrates and inflammation), but we all get lost in the weeds of nutrition and end up making dumb nutrition choices that leave us underfeeding, deprived, and set up for a rocky relationship with food (or worse, and eating disorder).

This plan is unlikely to meet YOUR specific nutrition needs and please do not follow it verbatim. Unless we’re working together on a 1:1 nutrition coaching basis, I cannot tell you how much you should be eating nor can this plan

If you need more education about how to fuel and nourish your gymnast, I invite you to join my NEW Live Nutrition Training Series for Gymnast Parents. This start on Saturday October 17th, 2020 and runs through the next 3 weekends. Topics include “food parenting the gymnast” (navigating #dietculture, picky eating, schedule craziness), fueling the gymnast, and female nutrition & health for the gymnast. Click here to grab your tickets to all 4 sessions or pick and choose the ones you want. Prices increase on Saturday October 17th.