As a gymnast, your body needs a lot of energy.
Of course you need energy to keep up in training and to support your recovery. But that's really just the icing on the cake! Firstly, your body needs energy to live, run all of your organs and body's systems, grow and develop, and do everyday activities.
When trying to figure out how much a gymnast should be eating, there are a few different factors that come into play:
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): The baseline. The bare minimum. This is how much energy you need just to stay alive! This includes basic body functions like breathing, keeping your heart beating, and growing. This baseline usually factors in your height, your weight, your age, how much muscle mass you have, and your normal energy intake, as well as hormone balance. For most people, BMR accounts for anywhere from 50% of your daily energy needs (for a highly trained athlete) to about 70% of your needs (for someone who's more sedentary).
The Thermic Effect of Food: The process of eating, digesting, and using the food you eat actually takes a good amount of energy, and can vary based on the types and amounts of foods you eat (protein, fat, and fiber specifically take more energy to break down). This process means you need about 10 to 15% more energy on top of that bare minimum just to get the most out of your food.
NEAT: aka "Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis" is the energy your body needs to do everyday activities, like walking the halls at school, typing on your computer, or fidgeting. This can vary from person to person or even from day to day and can account for anywhere from 15 to 30% more energy that you need.
Exercise: This is everything from gymnastics and strength and conditioning to PT, walking your dog, and PE class at school. Most gymnasts need an additional 300-500 calories of energy per hour of gymnastics training.
Injury Healing and Recovery: Recovery from practice and healing from an injury also takes additional energy. While this can vary based on the intensity of your workout or the severity of your injury (bruise, sprain, or soreness vs broken bones or surgery), the process of recovery means you'll need anywhere from 10-50% more energy.
When talking about energy in terms of food, most often we are referring to calories. I know that word gets thrown around a lot and can seem scary, but calories are just a measurement of energy in foods. Your goal is to get as close to 100% of the energy your needs (if not daily, as an average over time). Less is not always better: enough is best.
So let's talk hunger. In today's world, we're constantly told that hunger is a bad thing. That it's something we shouldn't be feeling regularly. That we should ignore it.
Hunger is just a signal from your body letting you know that you are low on energy.
It's not a bad or pesky signal. It's actually quite helpful.
AND, if you feel hungry in regular intervals, that actually means your body is running like it's supposed to!
"So how often am I supposed to feel hungry?"
I often recommend gymnasts eat a meal or snack every 2-3 hours. This means, you should feel hungry every 2-3 hours.
However, I hear so many gymnasts complain that they are constantly hungry! Even if they've just had a meal or snack, 5 minutes later, they're back in the pantry looking for something else.
This was definitely me as a gymnast! I thought, no matter what I ate, I was just deemed to a life of constant hunger and snacking.
As a dietitian, I know that this didn't have to be true for me, and it definitely doesn't have to be true for you.
If your meals or snacks aren't keeping you full for 2-3 hours, it's likely something is missing from your plate.
5 Reasons You Are Always Hungry:
1. You're not eating enough: This is probably the most obvious reason. It takes a lot of food to fuel a gymnast. More than you probably think. And definitely more than your friend who doesn't play sports or your sibling who plays after-school basketball for 2 hours a week.
The easiest way to start fueling with enough food is to follow the athlete's plate based on your training. Most training gymnasts should be following a moderate or hard day plate. The more hours and the higher intensity you're training, the more food you will need to put on that plate.
2. You didn't eat enough earlier in the day: Your meals and snacks should be a way to recover from the activity you did since you last ate AND as a way to prepare for the activity to come. This means you are constantly refilling your tank and fueling up for what's next.
So often, I see gymnasts trying to eat "so healthy", so they just grab a piece of fruit for breakfast and have a light salad for lunch. By mid-afternoon, they've hit that 3pm slump and can't stop snacking. And after practice, it's like the flood gates have opened and you just CAN'T STOP EATING!
It's not that you lack willpower or have no control around food. It's that your body is trying to play catch-up! The easiest way to stay on top of your hunger later in the day is to make sure you're eating enough food earlier in the day. That means starting the day with a substantial balanced breakfast, including a mid-morning snack, and using your athlete's plate at lunch!
3. Your meals and snacks don't have enough protein, fat, or fiber: Carbs are great for energy. But alone, your body will burn through them very quickly, so alone they don't have a lot of staying power. In order for your meals to keep you full and satisfied, be sure your plate also includes:
Protein: Most gymnasts need to include 20-30g of protein in each meal (3-5oz or a portion the size of the palm of your hand 1/2 inch thick) and 7-14g of protein at each snack (1-2oz or a half-palm sized portion). Include a food like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, nut butter, seeds, beans, lentils, or soy.
Fiber: Fiber works like an energy parachute, slowing down how fast it hits you, but helping that energy last longer. Fiber is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
Fat: Foods with fat are not only an energy boost, but they help your meals taste satisfying. They also take the most time and energy for your body to digest. Include foods like seafood, avocados, olives, nuts/nut butter, seeds, hummus, full-fat dairy, cooking oils, or salad dressing in your meals
Right before practice, you want to proceed with caution. Since protein, fat, and fiber take more time to digest, they are likely to be the culprit of stomach aches, nausea, and bathroom runs during practice.
4. You're dehydrated: Not drinking enough water can make you feel tired and sluggish, making your body think it needs an energy boost from food. Most gymnasts need AT LEAST 1/2 their body weight (in lbs) in water each day, not counting the extra you need for training. Staying hydrated for training means also drinking 8-16oz an hour before practice, 8-16oz every hour of training, and 16-24oz after training.
While this may seem like a lot, the easiest way to stay hydrated is to take sips of water all day long (especially during practice) and pour yourself a tall glass with each meal and snack.
5. You're not getting enough sleep: As a growing gymnast, your body needs anywhere from 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to run at 100%. Sleep is essential not only to feel well-rested and energized, but for growth and recovery, brain health, and hormone regulation (including those that impact hunger). Getting less than 8 hours of sleep at night can cause some of your body’s signals to adapt and change as a way of coping with low energy and less recovery time, including increasing your hunger signal and cravings for energy-dense foods.
Prioritize at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night. Habits like wearing blue light blocking glasses, having a technology curfew (turning off the tv, computer, and phone at least 30 minutes before bed), and building a bed-time routine with relaxing activities (like taking a hot shower or reading) can all improve your sleep quality and quantity. And, sneak some power-naps in when you can!
Remember, fueling your body as a high-level athlete is not something you have to figure out on your own! As a Registered Dietitian, I can help you want to feel confident with your fueling plan and learn to fuel success! Are you curious about how working together could improve your performance in the gym? Apply to work with me!