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4 Reasons Gymnasts Feel Addicted to Sugar (and what to do about it)

Sugar is extremely stigmatized (and sometimes even demonized), not just in the gymnastics community, but by our society! It gets a really bad reputation.



There are so many messages in the media and in our sport that warn against sugar, saying you must limit or avoid it at all costs...



As a gymnast, I know you want to take care of your body and perform your best, and the messaging often given to young gymnasts is in order to do that, you have to eat super *healthy* and *clean*, and avoid sweets, treats, desserts, and foods with added sugar.



So you try and give up the foods that you love.



You try to stop eating desserts...and it works for a day or two...but then, it's like you can't help yourself! You feel like you have no willpower and you just cave!



Instead of eating a satisfying portion, you go nuts! You feel sick and out of control. You ask those around you to stop buying it, to hide it, and not let you near it. You'll just start your "diet" again tomorrow and try harder next time.


Sound familliar?


As a registered dietitian for gymnasts, I have so many conversations with concerned gymnasts and parent who seem to be *obsessed* with sugar. More than anything else, they seem to consistently ask for:

Cookies...

Candy...

Waffles...

Fries...

Sugary Cereal...

Chips...

Ice cream...

Bread...



And you start to question...


"Is this too much???"



"This can't be healthy."



"There's no way this is good for my training!"



Because, according to society (and gymnastics culture) you shouldn't be eating any at all... (and then feel guilty when you can't live up to this unrealistic standard)



In my professional opinion (as a registered dietitian), sugar is OK to eat. It is not going to ruin your training or change your body. And, I highly doubt you are "addicted" to it,


Gymnastics (and being a functioning human being in general) takes A LOT of energy, and carbohydrates are your body's favorite source to get energy from. This energy is what powers everything from your walks around the neighborhood to your gymnastics, conditioning, and recovery.



Sugar (glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose, etc.) is a simple, broken down carbohydrate. Whether it comes from grains, fruits, vegetables, or candy the body uses this carbohydrate the same.


Yes, food group foods (like grains, fruits, and vegetables) have other attributes. Nutrients like fiber to help with fullness and gut health, vitamins and minerals to help the body with it's many processes. And yes, we do not want candy, sweets, and treats to take away from you ability to eat these foods most of the time.


BUT, when it comes to energy, the carbohydrate is used the same.


The idea that eating excess carbohydrates automatically turns into body fat is not true. Since the body really likes to use carbohydrates for energy, it will first use carbohydrates as an immediate form of energy to power the activity you are currently doing.


Second, the body will then store excess carbohydrates (not as fat) but as a molecule known as glycogen, which is stored in your muscles and in your liver to be easily broken down and give your body energy between meals or during workouts. As a high-level athlete with increased muscle mass, it is likely that your body can store more energy this way compared to a less-active person. This is desirable if you want to get through a 3, 4, 5+ hour workout.


Carbohydrate is also stored in the body with water. When people say they immediately lose weight by cutting out carbs OR immediately gain weight by eating a lot of carbs, really, the scale fluctuation is just water. As a gymnast, the water stored with carbohydrate plays an important role in keeping you hydrated.


For carbohydrates to be turned to excesses fat mass in the body, a gymnast would have to be eating carbohydrates well beyond your immediate needs and these glycogen stores. And since gymnastics takes a lot of energy (and 50-70% of that coming from carbohydrates), it's unlikely that a gymnast would actually eat such an excess of carbohydrates (more than 300, 400, even 500+ grams of daily carbohydrates for some) that they would be turned into fat and stored in the body this way.


In reality, foods with sugar can be a regular part of any person's diet, weather you're a high level athlete or not ( but especially in strategic situations like pre- and mid-practice).


Sugar truly is just a simple carb. Fruits, vegetables, starches all break down into sugar.


But I eat a ton of carbs. Why am I craving sugary foods?





Even if you feel like you include a fair amount of carbohydrate foods in your diet, many gymnasts still crave sugar most of the time, and there are several reasons for this (and none of them include a lack of willpower...)


1. You're not eating enough overall:


Since carbs are the body's preferred source of energy and sugar is a simple carbohydrate that the body can easily break down for quick energy, you may crave carbs and sugary foods when you're not eating enough. Your cravings are simply just your body's way of trying to increase your energy intake.


2. You're not eating enough CARBS:


Similarly, if a gymnast is not eating enough carbohydrates (from places like grains, fruit, veggies, dairy, legumes, and fun foods), the body may still struggle to have all the energy needed for gymnastics and other activities, so cravings are increased to get the body more of that type of energy!


Realistically, many high level gymnasts need upwards of 300, 400, or more grams of carbohydrates each day. This is the equivalent of approximately:

  • 27 slices of bread, or

  • 9 Cups of rice, or

  • 19 apples, or

  • 38 cookies

The brain alone requires 120-130g of carbohydrates for normal functioning! Remember, a gymnast is likely going to eat more than those around them (peers, siblings, and family members).


3. You're restricting carbs or sugary foods:


I've seen it time and time again - a gymnast falls into the binge-restrict cycle that leaves them craving sugar and carbohydrates. They avoid a certain food (or group of foods) for so long, causing the craving to keep building, to a point that, when you finally encounter and eat it (like on halloween or other holiday, a birthday party, etc.), it's like the flood gates have opened! And of course the resulting guilt, shame, and "I'll do better next time" cycle begins again... When in reality, the more often we include sweets and treats in our daily meals and snacks, the easier it becomes to listen to your body and be able to self-regulate around these foods.


For some, even just the thought of restriction ("I can only eat 1 cookie" or "I'm only allowed to drink soda at a friend's house") can be enough to leave your brain wanting more. Instead, give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods.


4. They're delicious!


Plain and simple, high carb (and sweet) foods just taste good. No wonder you enjoy eating them! Remember, there are more reasons to eat than just performance or health and it is ok to include sweets, treats, and other foods you enjoy as a regular part of your fueling routine along with a variety of foods from all the food groups.


So what's the solution to lowering sugar cravings?


If you or your gymnast struggles around sweets and treats, the biggest change you can make is to eat enough, eat often, and stop restricting these foods - carbohydrates in general and sugary foods! Honor your body's (and mind's) cravings, and you'll find that high sugar foods will likely lose a bit of their appeal once they're no longer "forbidden". Additionally, make sure you are eating ENOUGH food in general to fuel your training, and are regularly including foods with complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber, a variety of colors, and fats in your fueling plan as well to have the energy you need to fuel your practices and your activities outside of the gym too!


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