Gymnastics has a long and complicated history with food (healthy eating, disordered eating, body image, etc.). There are so many stereotypes in the sport of gymnastics, specifically surrounding food and body image that are built on assumptions and folk-lore.
"Gymnasts have to be small."
"Eating carbs will make you gain weight."
"Lighter girls fly higher."
"Don't eat sweets or junk food."
"You need to have a gymnast body."
"Too much water will make you look bloated."
I heard all of these when I was a gymnast and honestly I'm sick of still hearing them today.
Sadly, many gymnasts feel like if they don’t meet this “thin, little” standard of the “gymnast body”, or can't maintain a "perfect diet", then they are not going to “make it.”
It is important for you to remember that there is no such thing as a “gymnast body”.
If you are a gymnast, are in a gym, or are doing gymnastics, your body is a gymnast body.
And the reality is, there is no such thing as a perfect diet or meal.
Setting that expectation for yourself (or your gymnast) is just setting yourself up for failure.
All bodies are meant to be different and that is normal. Trying to eat like someone else or make your body look a way it was not meant to be (and thinking you can manipulate your body's shape and size with food) will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental stress, (and the very real possibility of developing a serious eating disorder).
My job as a registered dietitian working with gymnasts is more about helping you perform like a high-level gymnast (and less about just merely looking like one...). In order to do that, these are the 3 fueling practices I always look at.
The 3 Fueling Tips Every Gymnast Needs To Know
1. No Foods Are Off Limits.
That's right. Even as a gymnast striving to be your best at the highest level, you can eat any food you want.
Restriction, both physical ("avoiding certain foods or food groups") and mental ("I'm only allowed to eat 1 cookie") is a vicious cycle. It's like a pendulum - constantly swinging from one extreme to another. And always ends with guilt, shame, and disappointment (and will never result in you being a happier, healthier, higher-performing gymnast).
Food is not inherently "good" or "bad". There is no scientific evidence that directly links eating 1 specific food or food group to 1 specific outcome.
So no, simply eating carbs won't make you gain weight.
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 and should be both!
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 gymnastics).
2. Eat enough.
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 tip of the iceberg! 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.
The best place to start when trying to eat enough is to follow your athlete's plate at meals and include balanced snacks throughout the day! In an athlete's plate, each section of your plate is taken up by grains and starches (for energy), protein (for muscles and recovery) and for fruits and vegetables (aka color for fiber, vitamins, and minerals).
Use the Athlete's Plate as your personal blueprint to include your favorites from all the food groups (get the guide here!).
3.Eat On A Schedule
In order to eat enough, make the most of your nutrition, and keep your energy up throughout the day, it is important to eat regular meals and snacks. A well-fueled gymnast usually eats every 2 to 3 hours. In addition to 3 main meals each day, most gymnasts also need to eat 2-4 fueling snacks.
For example, a gymnast that goes to school in the morning and trains in the afternoon might plan their meals and snacks like this:
For meals or snacks eaten within 1 hour before practice OR snacks taken to eat during practice, prioritize foods high in quick-carbs with just a little bit of protein or healthy fat. Foods that are too high in protein, fat, or fiber are more likely to upset a gymnast’s stomach while training.
For snacks eaten in the first hour after practice, include mostly quick-carbs with a serving of protein (3:1 ratio of carbs and protein). This will help your body start to refill its energy stores and repair your muscles.
Remember to eat a full balanced meal (protein, starch, color, fat) within 3 hours of practice ending!
Want to feel confident with your fueling plan and learn to fuel success? I help competitive gymnasts fuel their bodies, prevent injuries, and reach their highest potential. Curious about how working together could improve your performance in the gym? Let's chat! Schedule a free discovery call with me today.