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.
Do you worry about your gymnast’s diet and whether she’s eating the “right foods”? Parents (and coaches) often worry when they watch their gymnasts’ bodies change. They assume it’s because of what the athlete is eating. But food is just one part of the equation. Often, the response to an athlete’s body change is to limit specific foods and monitor everything the gymnast eats. In reality, helicoptering and restricting your gymnast’s diet will only backfire.
At first glance, helping “control” what your gymnast eats may seem like the best approach. Not having junk foods in the house, eating only “clean foods”, and/or eliminating sugar often gets praised. This mindset of praising those who are orthorexic is completely influenced by diet culture. The issue is that a “healthy” or “clean” diet doesn’t guarantee performance or health. What ends up happening is most gymnasts with very restricted diets are not getting enough nutrition and likely have RED-S.
Now, no one is saying that your gymnast’s diet should only consist of cookies, candy, and fried foods. This is usually what is assumed when dietitians like myself suggest that gymnasts should be able to enjoy the “fun foods” on a regular basis. A gymnast’s daily food intake should contain a variety of nutrient-dense foods and the fun foods.
In gymnastics, the goal is always perfection. Anything under that is often seen as a failure and “not good enough”. The exact same thing applies to their nutrition. It either has to be perfectly clean with no “junk food” or the gymnast is shamed for being lazy and not having enough willpower to maintain a strict diet. No person or any diet can be perfect. Just because your gymnast wants to enjoy a cookie does not mean they are weak or lazy.
B+ nutrition is the ultimate goal for your athletes.
You may be wondering why I do not want your gymnast to get an A in nutrition. When restricting a gymnast’s diet with only clean foods and limiting anything outside of that, their risk for things going south is much higher than if they just ate the fun foods.
Many times, parents freak out because they find empty fast food bags in their gymnast’s car. Or maybe it’s candy wrappers hidden in their rooms. Parents question why since the athlete knows they are not supposed to eat those types of foods. THIS IS A BIG RED FLAG THAT YOUR GYMNAST IS BEING OVER-RESTRICTED. Once her brain is in scarcity mode, she is likely going to eat anything in sight that she has not allowed herself to have. The fear of not having access to that food for a long time causes her to consume much more of it when it is available. This piece of the puzzle is the direct reason why deprivation breeds overeating.
Liberalizing food does not mean it is a free for all. There is still a focus on incorporating proteins, colorful fruits, and veggies, whole grains, etc into the diet to help with inflammation, growth and development, and recovery. However, it is equally important not to restrict your gymnast’s diet and prevent her from enjoying the fun foods. They are an important part of the satisfaction aspect of eating.
From a psychological and physiological standpoint, food is food. At the end of the day, every single food breaks down into one of the three macronutrients: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Your gymnast’s body has no way of recognizing where these nutrients come from. To the cells of the body, it is just a protein, carb, or fat building block. Therefore, whether it is a piece of candy or grapes all the body can recognize is what it breaks down into. Specifically, glucose and fructose which are simple carbs or simple sugars. No one is saying that candy has more nutrients than grapes, but at the end of the day, food is food regardless of whether it is “clean” or not.
Take a look at the kinds of foods that you have in your house. Do you only have fun foods or only have clean foods? Do you never serve dessert or let your child have fun foods? Your control can be implemented (to some degree) onto your gymnast while she is living in your house. But when she goes to college it is a whole different ball game. Restricting your gymnast’s diet today can lead to a host of problems when she is living independently as an adult.
College is where you see all of their restriction and food scarcity mindset combust. With constant access to any type of food their heart desires, your gymnast will have no idea how to regulate herself when it comes to eating. This is why so many college gymnasts suffer from food and body issues. Because they do not know how to fuel themselves properly. By trying to make up for lost time, they often eat a lot of fun foods that they were never allowed to eat as a child. But they don’t balance it with nutrient-dense foods. This can lead to many issues, but the most prevalent is eating disorders. Teaching your gymnast how to maintain B+ nutrition before they leave for college is essential to them avoiding an eating disorder.
There are two fantastic books that all parents should read. The first is Child of Mine by Ellen Satter. It touches on how to feed your child over the course of their lifespan. It also elaborates on a term called the “division of responsibility”. This idea seeks to show parents their and their child’s role around food. They get to do the “what and when” around food. Their child gets to do the “how much”. Parents provide the food and the meal/snack schedule, while their gymnast gets to decide on the “how much” she wants to consume.
When parents begin to overstep their boundaries and start controlling portions of their gymnast’s food, they are directly cutting off their gymnast’s connection with her body. She cannot learn how to honor her hunger and fullness cues. In the long term, this will hurt her performance and body composition. And sets her up for a life of dieting and body distrust.
The second book I recommend all gymnast parents read is Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Unlike the previous book, this one highlights the consequences of restriction, food rules, the “food police”, and why dieting isn’t the answer. It emphasizes that many of these behavioral patterns get passed down from those who have had their own negative food experiences. Coaches and parents who either had eating disorders or a bad relationship with food and their bodies, often do not know how to teach their gymnast another way to fuel other than the one they grew up doing. They restrict their gymnast’s diet because that’s what they know. Hence, these two books are essential reads to make sure the unhealthy behaviors do not pass on to your gymnast.
One big misconception is that allowing “fun foods” in the house at all times will lead to overeating and gaining weight because the gymnast won’t be able to “control herself”. In reality, this statement is completely false. By not having them in your house, it actually increases your gymnast’s chance to overeat. When there is a lack of fun foods in the house, your child’s mind goes into the food scarcity mindset. This basically means that a person never knows when a specific food is going to be available. So when it is available, they want to eat all of it. This desire to eat every fun food insight is derived from the fear of it never being available to them again.
However, there is a way to curb this food scarcity mindset. Although it seems super counterintuitive, keeping foods like ice cream, potato chips, candy, etc. in the house at all times will actually help their overeating. Your gymnast will be able to trust that the potato chips are always going to be there. So, there is no need to eat so many at one time or when they do not even want them. The first few times your child may still overeat because she has not built the trust yet. However, once they can build that trust, it will prepare them for when they are not under your roof anymore.
This can also go for any parent who struggles with this issue. Not keeping these foods in your house so that there is no way you can have access, just breeds the restrict-binge cycle. The process of neutralizing foods like this is called “habituation”. But it can only happen with repeated, unconditional permission to enjoy the “off-limits” foods.
Your goal as a parent is to create an environment that allows your gymnast to be able to trust her body. As a result, when she moves out of the house, she knows how to fuel herself properly.
I hope you found this helpful. If you want to do everything you can to help your gymnast, I invite you to join my new masterclass “How to Keep the High-Level Gymnast Healthy this Season” to learn more!
If you feel your gymnast needs 1:1 help or would like to schedule a discovery call, please feel free to contact me.