Sugar is extremely stigmatized (and sometimes even demonized), not just in the gymnastics community, but by our society! They get 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, you want to take care of your body. So you try and give up your favorite foods. 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 go nuts! Instead of eating a satisfying portion, you go nuts! You feel sick and out of control, and you'll start your "diet" again tomorrow. You'll just try harder next time.
I mean, as a gymnast, what do you seem to crave more than anything?
Basically any and all foods with sugar and carbs! It's likely you feel like you're eating 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)
HOWEVER, in my professional opinion (as a registered dietitian nutritionist), I highly doubt you are truly eating too much sugar (and it's even less likely that you are "addicted"...).
So, you're saying I can eat sugar?
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. 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, your 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. Additionally, 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 fat in the body, you 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 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 still craving sugary foods?
Even if you feel like you include a fair amount of carbohydrate foods in your diet, you could still be craving sugar most of the time. There are several reasons you could still be experiencing strong cravings for these foods:
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 you're not eating enough carbohydrates (from places like grains, fruit, veggies, dairy, legumes, and fun foods), your body may still struggle to make all the energy you need for gymnastics and other activities, so you crave more of them to get that types 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
The brain alone requires 120-130g of carbohydrates for normal functioning!
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. You avoid a certain food (or group of foods) for so long, causing your craving to keep building, to a point that, when you finally eat it, 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... 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 want a cookie! 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?
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!