Recently a college gymnastics coach asked me if I knew one of the best in-practice (or in-meet) pick-me-up foods. I made a few naïve, idealistic stabs. “Nope,” he grinned. “Fruit Loops.” I didn’t know whether to cry at my innocence or to promptly squeeze his grin between my right thumb and forefinger, giving him a verbal lashing and the full weight of my academic condescension. I was so frustrated!
Faulty Nutrition Advice
I’m disappointed in the common gymnastics nutrition advice I encounter. It’s worthy of censorship. I don’t want anyone to touch my daughter’s nutrition without her running it by me first. Often the advice encourages exceptionally high carbohydrate counts and very low fat intakes. (How are they ever to absorb the vitamin D and vitamin K2 they need for their bones as grandmas?) Other times it advocates for highly processed cereals and granola bars loaded with sugars. (What nutritional punch does sugar pack?)
What’s a mom to do? Well, I like the gymnast in our family to focus on the nutrients her body needs to make strong bones, to keep muscle cramping to a minimum, and to protect her head in case of a bad fall. We focus on real, whole, and deeply nutritious foods. Focusing on these foods also encourages her immune system to fight off colds, helps keeps her tendons and ligaments well-supplied, and allows her hormonal system to have a chance to function properly.
Doesn’t She Need Carbohydrates?
As far as macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) go, I ask her to try figure out the best carbohydrate to protein to fat ratio for herself– using her hunger, energy, and mental clarity and focus to help guide her. (I firmly believe that each athlete is an individual with unique macronutrient needs. It is not “one-diet-fits-all.”) I explain that carbohydrate foods, although fast-acting, will not stick around very long, but that fats and proteins digest more slowly and can help her feel full longer. She includes carbohydrates for their quick pay-off of energy, and then she plays with the fat and protein amounts to determine the amounts (and kinds) which keep her feeling full– but still energetic and light and springy on her feet (or hands).
Reality Checks and Hard Talks
Food never goes away and our relationship with it really colors our whole life! So, periodically we talk about eating disorders, and I’ll ask her how she’s feeling about what we’re eating. We have talked in the past about the weight of muscle mass versus fat mass (muscle weighs more) and how weight is not a good indicator of health, fitness, or gymnastics capabilities. We talk about avoiding junk food but how to let loose and enjoy them comfortably when we want to.
Since competitive gymnasts often want to stay “little,” we talk about the changing body and the fact that a female gymnast’s skills will ebb and flow, progress and flop, as the physical body changes– and that will just require her to train smarter (to understand the physics of strength, power, vertical jump advantage, and quickness) and show off what a woman can do!
Competitive gymnastics has been suppressing the growth of competitive gymnasts for a long time, and I want none of that garbage for my precious one. I want her to embrace fully what it feels like to be an empowered woman, never afraid of food or eating–or actually of anything or anyone. I want bold, confident, and intelligent-minded women who will leave their sports behind one day but transfer everything they learned into a new path.
Back to Nutrition
Okay. Back to nutrition. I made a chart for our fridge that I thought I’d share on-line here. It’s the table you see above as the image for this post. You can, I hope, pull up the PDF file for clear printing here:
Addendum: I have updated the same table you see as the image to read “Ten Nutrients Athletes Can’t Be Without… And How to Eat Them!” That way it can also be printed off for non-gymnast athletes too. For the PDF to this version, click here:
I could have added iron, vitamin B12, and folate to this list. But if the foods on this list are eaten, those nutrients are each covered too. Meat has iron and vitamin B12. Beans and green vegetables have folate.
Many experts do recommend supplementing with calcium, vitamin D, and omega 3 fatty acids for gymnasts. Talk to your doctor about that. Since we don’t eat a lot of dairy in our house due to some intolerances, I do rotate through bone supplements for the kids. But please, I prefer that you talk with your doctor about that. I am here to share our story and my thoughts, but you should not use it blindly as medical advice. Instead, use it to further your own research and discussions with your doctor. I love comments and would be happy to hear what you do for your gymnasts, concerns you have about gymnastics nutrition, or constructive discussion on what I have written and composed here in this post. Thanks!
Please, help your gymnast find his or her way to strength, dignity, courage, and long-lasting belief in his or her amazing self-worth as a person, not just an athlete.