Between family members, coaches, and medical professionals, it takes a village to keep a gymnast happy, healthy, and performing their best. Every gymnast deserves to have an amazing TEAM supporting them, and a nutrition professional should be part of that team.
The food that you eat are the building blocks of every single part of the body and ultimately gives you the energy for everything you do – not only gymnastics, school, and the rest of everyday life, but keeping you alive, growing, and developing. Proper growth and development require a slew of nutrients from a variety of foods and this includes muscle growth and strength. Brain function and focus also requires energy. And of course, if you want to recover from a hard practice, an injury, or prevent injuries, you need to provide the building blocks to maintain and promote health. If you're not considering this as an important part of your training, it will be hard to be at your best.
Finding a nutrition professional to work with you (or your gymnast) can be tough. There are a ton of "nutrition experts" out there - how do you know what to look for? Here are 4 things to help you determine if a nutrition professional is a good fit to add to your team.
4 RED FLAGS You Need to Look Out For When Finding A Nutrition Professional As A Gymnast
1. Their Credentials:
Ever wonder what the difference between a "nutritionist" and a "dietitian" is?
Here in the US, there is no standard to call yourself a "nutritionist". A nutritionist can have some education or training (I've come across some wonderful people with B.S's, M.S.'s, and PhD's in nutrition), but this is not guaranteed. Many "nutritionists" have merely taken an online course (as short as 1 hour) before the began "practicing". There is no code of ethics for nutritionists: many do not promote evidence-based practices and are not adequately trained to deal with this subject tactfully (and in a way that helps, not harms).
Instead, look for the "RD" Credential (may also be listed as RDN or LDN). This means that they are a Registered Dietitian (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist). An RD is a legally protected medical license (like MD, PT, AT, etc.). To become an RD, a nutrition professional must:
Complete a a bachelor's degree in nutrition from an accredited program (where coursework requires everything from microbiology and organic chemistry, to psychology, food science, and of course medical nutrition therapy) 4-5 years of education
Most have a master's degree (which will be required by 2024 for licensure) 1-2 years of education
Complete a 1200+ hour Dietetic Internship of supervised practice (after matching into a highly competitive program) 1 year of education
Pass a national board exam
Maintain a minimum of 75 continuing education credits every 5 years to stay up-to-date on the latest research and practice
Abide by a code of ethics
Registered Dietitians are THE nutrition experts (with a minimum 5 years of formal education). Other credentials that indicate a dietitian may be appropriate to work with a young gymnasts include (but are not limited to):
Master's Degree (M.S., M.Ed., MPH, etc.) or PhD
CSSD (Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics)
CHES (Certified Health Education Specialist)
CSP (Board Certified Pediatric & Adolescent Specialist)
CEDS/CEDRD (Certified Eating Disorders Specialist)
Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor
2. Their Background:
Just like you wouldn't go to a heart doctor to fix your broken foot, dietitians also have specialties. Many nutrition providers are great at their job, but if they don’t understand sports nutrition or the nuances of gymnastics, this could be the difference between you making progress and standing still (or even causing more harm). Look for a dietitian who knows about the sport of gymnastics (and the sport's culture surrounding food, weight, and body image). They could be a former gymnast, have a gymnast in their family, been around the sport, or they want to learn more about the sport and have taken courses in gymnastics to better understand. A provider who understands the sport of gymnastics can better help with your treatment plan.
3. Their Focus
Gymnastics has a long and complicated history with nutrition, disordered eating, and aesthetics. And as we look back, so much of this stems from an emphasis on appearance and a number on a scale. The reality is, the scale will not tell you any useful information about a gymnast's health, performance, or potential. However, many nutritionists (or even dietitians unfamiliar with gymnastics) still take a weight-focused approach, which is unnecessary and inappropriate when dealing with CHILDREN.
A dietitian working with gymnasts should be more concerned with their health, their body's personal biofeedback (aka things like energy, sleep, mood, training, health and injury history, etc.) and their performance than any number on a scale. All bodies are meant to be different and that is normal. Trying to make your body look a way it was not meant to be will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental stress, (and the very real possibility of developing a serious eating disorder). Make sure your dietitian agrees and aligns with this mindset.
4. Their Recommendations:
So many gymnasts I talk to are hesitant to work with a dietitian. They are scared that a dietitian will put them on a strict diet, take away their favorite foods, or make them eat foods that they don't like. And honestly, I don't blame them. I still hear so many "nutritionists":
Prescribing strict diets to CHILDREN (more on why that doesn't work here)
Require strict calorie counting or macro tracking (more on why that's not ideal for young gymnasts here)
Pushing their personal beliefs (or unresolved nutrition issues) onto their clients
Handing out rigid or cookie-cutter meal plans (if you're curious, read more on why meal plans don't work)
Using commercial tests that are not valid nor reliable
Recommending unverified supplements or miracle cures (learn more about why unverified supplements can be harmful, especially for children under the age of 18)
The best dietitian will not put you on a diet or meal plan or tell you that you can or can’t eat any foods. They will help you fit the foods you do like into a customized plan that makes sense for you (all while encouraging you and helping you explore and try new foods if that’s something you decide you want to do). Their recommendations will be backed by research and scientific evidence, and should be driven by YOU!
So remember, while a nutrition professional should be on every gymnast's team, it is important to do your research and work with a licensed professional who know's and understands gymnasts and has a philosophy that you align with.