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A Registered Dietitian's Most Essential Tips for Parents of Young Gymnasts Starting Out in the Sport

When your child first gets into gymnastics it may just be for the fun of it, once or twice a week for an hour, and is mostly just an opportunity to let out some energy (in a safer environment) and hangout with friends. 

But then, a coach invites them to join the team. They've been hand picked, identified as someone with a lot of strength, flexibility, and natural talent.

You’re all so excited! What an amazing and fun opportunity! They’ve been sought out by coaches or the gym owner as being an athlete with lots of potential for the sport. Before you know it, they’re living, breathing, and sleeping gymnastics - doing 3-5 practices a week for 3-4+ hours at a time! 

Suddenly, it hits you... You realize how many new demands there are for your time (and theirs) between commuting to and from practice, school, and work, grocery shopping, making meals and snacks, and helping them with their homework at the end of the day. You already have so many demands and time commitments as a parent, so you may be finding yourself struggling to keep up and are lost on what you should be feeding your gymnast. 

You find yourself asking other gym parents, coaches, and probably the internet about how to manage this new, chaotic schedule, and how you should be feeding your athlete since they are busy during most typical meal times.

While these are all great resources to consult with, you also have to be mindful that these people (or the internet) aren’t necessarily experts either, and may not actually know or understand what is best for your active and growing child… 

Most parents I talk to have no idea what to feed their young gymnast (or for that matter), how to talk to their young child about nutrition.

Especially if you’re parent who's new to gymnastics, you might be finding:

  1. You are always on the go, dinner is a mad race to get to practice on time

  2. Your child puts up a fight at meal times because they either aren’t hungry or don’t want to eat what you’ve offered

  3. Your kid is eating more sugar/"junk" than you want them to, but they don’t seem to want anything else

  4. Your gymnast is falling asleep at the dinner table and is always just so tired

As a parent, you have a lot on your plate. You're expected to be an expert in everything for everyone in your family!

As a dietitian for gymnasts, I’ve seen both end of the spectrum. I've seen gymnasts as young as 7 be put on a special, restrictive diet. I've also seen gymnast's try to be their best while eating almost nothing but buttered noodles and oreos! Clearly neither of these scenarios is good for any gymnast (let alone a young child)!

Most parents, when they don’t know what to feed their gymnast, they ask a coach, a fellow parent, just Google it, even search for answers in a Facebook group (filled with lots of keyboard experts...).

But the problem is...

These resources don’t actually teach you and your child how to fuel properly as a gymnast. There is a lot of nutrition information on the internet. It is hard to know what is right for your young gymnast! Especially since so much of that information is often for the general public, adults, and high-level athletes.

Which leads me to discuss some of the most common misconceptions that people have when it comes to nutrition for gymnasts… 

Mainstream Nutrition Advice Does Not Always Apply To Gymnasts

1. Foods shouldn’t be labeled as “good” or “bad”

As a young and extremely active athlete, their energy needs and requirements are going to be much higher than you would think (and much higher than other kids their age). With this in mind, your gymnast is going to need nutrient dense meals and snacks all day long, but this doesn’t mean every food at every meal needs to be a salad or smoothie because they’re “healthy.” "Healthy" or "clean" according to mainstream standards does not indicate adequate for a gymnast.

Because of their high energy needs, eating fruits and vegetables all day is actually not going to provide them with all of the energy (aka calories) or nutrients they need to perform their best. This is where it is incredibly important to not view certain foods as “good” or health” and “bad.”

Processed foods that mainstream health messaging considers to be “unhealthy” can actually help your athlete get closer to their energy goal for the day compared to eating multiple salads. Eating a variety of foods that contain carbohydrates, protein, and fats, will help give them energy for practice, help build muscle to help prevent injury, and aid in the recovery process so that they are ready to attack practice the next day feeling their best. 

At the end of the day, underfueling is incredibly common in gymnasts, whether they realize it or not, and can have serious health related consequences if left untreated for extended periods of time. 

2. Carbohydrates are necessary for everyday life and are extremely important for athletes

So often, there is a fear of carbs and this usually stems from fad diets, social media, and internet “health coaches.” In reality, the human body prefers carbohydrates as its main source of energy, and requires higher amounts of carbs when utilizing lots of energy for long gymnastics practices. Additionally, children and adolescents are physiologically programed to use more carbohydrate compared to an adult, especially during physical activity.

Not eating enough carbohydrates throughout the day, before practice, during practice, and even after practice can leave your gymnast feeling 

  • Sluggish 

  • Exhausted all the time 

  • Lacking power and energy when training

  • Finding it difficult to focus and concentrate

  • Like they can’t fully recover before the next practice

  • Craving high carbohydrate foods (like candy and sweets)

Carbs can be found in a variety of foods like pastas, rice, potatoes, breads, and fruits. Consuming several different types of carbohydrates each day can ensure that your athlete has energy all day long and not only survive but thrive during a 3-4 hour practice. 

3. Nutrition won’t solve all your problems, but is often the missing piece to a complex puzzle

Following a perfect fueling plan won’t solve all your problems in a high-intensity, high-risk sport like gymnastics. However, nutrition is often overlooked (especially at the early stages) in the greater overall plan of athlete performance.

This is an extremely important piece that is missing because no amount of Physical Therapy appointments, extra conditioning, private lessons, or Sports Psychology visits can overrule or reverse any negative effects of under fueling on poor performance. 

Over time, under fueling can lead to a myriad of consequences related to Low Energy Availability and eventually RED-S, which can include decreased performance, poor recovery and strength, poor mood, mental health, and mental performance, and increased risk of injury.

A Few Things I Wish Every New Gymnast And Their Parents Knew

As a former gymnast myself, if there was one thing I wish my parents and I knew from the start, it was, it was how essential the things I was doing outside of the gym - getting enough sleep, fueling my body, taking care of myself - were to my success, health, and longevity in this sport.

In gymnastics, you always start with the basics. You build strength and endurance. Learn basic skills. Then you build on that foundation and learn more difficult skills and combinations. Develop a poor foundation when you're young, it's really difficult to excel later on.

A gymnast's body is the same way. Foundational health for a gymnast - bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons - starts at the very beginning. And nothing is more crucial to building a strong foundation than nutrition - eating enough overall energy, getting in adequate carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals can not only impact how your gymnast performs today, this week, and this season, but also how well their body adapts and holds up over the life of their career.

By exposing your athlete to nutrition at a young age and working with a sports dietitian (as opposed to health “experts” on the internet), you are increasing the likelihood of your gymnast developing a positive relationship with food, establishing realistic strategies for meeting energy needs, and decreasing the risk of Low Energy Availability and RED-S. Focusing on nutrition from the get-go can be seen as more of a preventative measure, as opposed to trying to play “catch up” after an injury or prolonged period of low energy! 

So, where do I even begin?

I know… nutrition can feel so overwhelming if you aren’t sure who to turn to for help or where to get your information from, but don’t worry! That is exactly why I created my Fueling The Compulsory Gymnast: A Nutrition Workbook for Young Gymnasts and Parents! 

This resource is perfect if you have ever wondered if your gymnast is:

  • Eating too much or why they’re constantly hungry 

  • Eating too much sugar or junk food

  • Eating enough of the right things

This guide is the only self-led, interactive workbook that parents AND young gymnasts can do together! This interactive workbook will teach parents how to support your gymnast by helping them fuel their body AND  teaches gymnasts how to understand nutrition and start fueling and recovering like a high-performing athlete

  • Have the tools to make informed food choices

  • Have more energy for school and gymnastics

  • Build more strength and endurance

  • Struggle less with soreness

  • Are at lower risk of injury

  • Are confident in their food choices

  • Are less likely to engage in disordered eating behaviors or develop an eating disorder

  • Have a better chance of competing at a higher level

This workbook is designed to help both you and your gymnast understand the ins and outs of fueling for gymnastics in a manageable and interactive way!


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