Which came first - Gymnasts becoming Type A Perfectionists or Type A Perfectionists gravitating towards gymnastics?
Ah...the eternal question
The basis of our sport is about being judged on how close you can get to perfection (that elusive 10.0) - the sport demands clean lines, flawless skills, stellar performances, and let's not forget every coach and judge's need to see straight knees and pointed toes.
When it comes to skills and training, many deem this goal of perfection as a positive and worthwhile attribute for a gymnast to have (a debate for another time).
However, when it comes to food and nutrition, this goal of perfectionism and "All or Nothing" mindset usually causes more harm than good.
It’s easy to dismiss this “All or Nothing” approach to nutrition as dedication to the sport. As a Registered Dietitian, former gymnast, and someone who's been involved in the sport for over 20 years, this is actually a huge red flag.
This black and white mindset around food is actually considered disordered and usually comes with a lot of guilt, shame, and anxiety around food and body image.
Now you may be thinking, "I (or my gymnast) don't have a problem." I just have a list of foods that I do and don't eat (while ignoring the reaction, compensation, fear, guilt, and shame when a "bad” or "unacceptable" food is offered or eaten...).
I've seen it time and time again - a gymnast falls into the binge-restrict cycle because of this "all or nothing" thinking. They avoid a certain food (or group of foods) for so long, that when they 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...
This pendulum swing from one extreme to another is just one example of the detrimental effects of unrealistic food expectations, extreme perfectionism, and the all-or-nothing mindset can have on gymnasts.
This mindset encourages a way of eating that is rigid, riddled with arbitrary restrictions, and is inevitably unsustainable.
Some other examples of all or nothing thinking include (but are not limited to)...
"I was so bad today. I might as well just 'throw in the towel' and start all over again on Monday."
"I must include X food with every single meal."
"I'm cutting out X food entirely...swearing off of it for good!"
Sound at all familiar?
The reality is that perfect nutrition does not exist.
There is and never will be a perfect diet or meal. Setting that expectation for yourself (or your gymnast) is just setting yourself up for failure.
When you're preoccupied with food, you're actually doing more harm to your body than if you just ate in an adequate, nourishing, and satisfying way. The constant stress of withholding then over-consuming nutrients can be a huge stressor on your body (one that could, over time, cause some pretty undesirable metabolic adaptations like a change in hormones, loss of your menstrual cycle, or an increase in body fat), which can be a contributor to stalled strength, poor performance, and injury. The constant cycle of setting unrealistic expectations for yourself (and then coming up short) can really take a toll on your mental health. And imagine how much better you would be in the gym if your focus was on your training instead of food and what your body looked like.
Food is not inherently "good" or "bad". There is no scientific evidence that directly links eating 1 food to 1 specific outcome.
For example: Often in gymnastics culture, I hear people say "don't eat that cookie, it will make you gain weight". I also hear people say that "kale (or insert any other superfood of the month) is the best food a gymnast could be eating". Reputations aside, let's think about these 2 foods for a second: both of these foods offer energy and nutrients (not saying that they are equivalent, but they both offer their own nutrient profile). Think for a second, how your body would feel if all you ate, all day every day, was cookies...probably sluggish, nauseous, and weak (from the lack of protein). Now think for a second, how would your body feel if all you ate, all day every day, was kale...probably full, bloated, and tired. Neither of these situations is ideal (for anyone, let alone a gymnast), and yet, we spend so much time touting the kale and demonizing the cookie.
To have a truly healthy relationship with food, you have to consciously and intentionally work to step away from the "all or nothing" mindset and learn to live in the gray area that is nutrition.
I often talk to the gymnasts I work with about striving for an 80/20 split. This means choosing the nutritionally dense foods (like whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy, etc.) because they fuel your body AND also including the fun foods that you enjoy regularly. It doesn’t have to be all vegetables and protein or only fun foods - It can be both!
Here are some examples of how you can turn "all or nothing" thinking around food into more flexible thoughts:
"I ate a variety of different foods today. That's okay, as I know there's no such thing as a 'perfect eater' and my body's needs, cues, and preferences will change from day to day."
"I can include X food at a meal if I want to/am able to. However, it's not an obligation. I get to choose what I eat based on what sounds good to me in the moment, what I have access to, and how I want to feel. If I decide not to have X food now, that does not mean I won't ever have it again and can intentionally choose to eat it at any other meal or snack."
"I know cutting out X food entirely will only lead me to fixate on it more, and feel out of control around in the future. How can I include this food as a part of my day/meal/snack in a way that feels good (both mentally and physically)?"
Remember, only eating the “healthy” foods doesn’t make you a superior gymnast. Your food choices are your own and they do not define you as a gymnast OR a person. By moving away from the all-or-nothing mindset and giving yourself permission to live in the gray area, I can guarantee that your physical and mental health will improve (and so will your training).