Nutrition is by far one of the most important areas of gymnastics to make sure athletes are fueled, safe, and getting the most out of their training. As I have said before, this is not my area of expertise and I regularly defer to others to help me learn more and know what the latest research suggests as best practice.

So today, I’m excited to have an amazing guest post from Christina Anderson, who is a Board Certified Registered Dietician who specializes in working with gymnasts of all levels but particularly with high level/elite athletes.

But before you dive in, I have to sing her praises and tell you her new incredible course “The Balanced Gymnast: Fundamentals” is now available to help high-level gymnasts and parents/coaches learn how to fuel for optimal performance and overall health.

If you are looking for easy to use concepts that are backed by loads of high-level science, this is for you. Not to mention for this week only, there are huge bonuses like custom nutrition strategy sessions for the first 10 sign-ups, private Q&As, exclusive material, and so much more. It’s on sale for this week only, so be sure to jump on it!

But enough of that here is the info! For reference, every highlighed link below with a ( ) next to it links out to a scientific research article. Thanks so much for this fantastic blog, Christina.

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It is no secret that gymnastics history is checkered with inappropriate nutrition practices that lead to delayed growth and development along with disordered eating and clinical eating disorders. For more on this history and what needs to change, listen to this podcast episode.

The high-level gymnast needs a lot of energy, or calories. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use the high-level gymnast as one who practices at least 3 hours per day, 4 or more days per week.

Due to a variety of culture issues, specifically #dietculture, most gymnasts are not properly fueling their workouts nor eating enough to support optimal adaptation and growth. Some gymnasts are afraid to eat in and around training out of fear of looking “bloated”, others have been told that water is sufficient to get them through long practices, and others are trying to manage their weight and eat as little as possible to delay normal growth and development.

These approaches to nutrition are not always motivated by over eating disorders, but rather misguided advice and misinformation. There is a lot of fear around carbohydrates and thus protein or fat sources seem “safer”, though they are not the appropriate intra-workout fuel for the gymnast.

Throughout this article we’ll look at what’s normal and what’s not for fueling the gymnast, how much energy and carbohydrate a gymnast needs to support optimal performance, and how a gymnast can enjoy all foods without sacrificing health or performance.

Normal Eating in a culture of disordered eating

Before we jump into discussing the nutritional needs of the high level gymnast, we have to first acknowledge what normal eating is and what it’s not.

  • Normal eating is being able to nourish your body with all foods without guilt, shame, or anxiety around food.
  • Normal eating is being able to pair your “outer” nutrition knowledge with your own needs, preferences, and resources.
  • Normal eating is being able to enjoy the cake on a birthday without having to “save up” or “burn it off”. It’s being able to eat out on occasion without stress over the meal’s ingredients.
  • Normal eating is being able to properly fuel a workout with what is on-hand for what the sport’s energy systems require.
  • Abnormal or disordered eating patterns include eliminating certain food groups without a medically-warranted reason (i.e. true food allergy or intolerance like celiac disease, etc).
  • Disordered eating encompasses only being able to eat a limited assortment of “safe” or “clean” foods and being unable to be spontaneous and eat outside the home or enjoy a special treat like a piece of birthday cake.
  • Disordered eating encompasses the inability to appropriately fuel a 3+ hour gymnastics practice out of fears over body shape, weight, or certain foods (i.e. fear of carbohydrates).

This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you get the idea.

A Gymnast’s Energy Needs

Let’s do some math. The high level gymnast, typically 13-18 years old, needs anywhere from 12-14 calories per pound of bodyweight just to support their most basic metabolic functions (basal metabolic rate, i.e. how many calories the body needs to lay in bed all day). Let’s say a gymnast is 16 years old and 125 lbs, this would equate to a minimum of 1500 calories per day just to support the heart, brain, lungs, etc.

This does not account for growth and development needs which are ongoing for the pre-adolescent/adolescent gymnast.Next, we add in the thermic effect of food (1) (the “cost” to breakdown, absorb food), non-exercise activity thermogenic (fidgeting, walking around the house or school, etc) which will comprise another several hundred calories.

Finally we take a look at exercise expenditure, which can be anywhere from 400-900+ calories (2) in a 3-5+ hour training session. I can’t tell you how many calories your gymnast needs and would encourage you to meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in sports nutrition if you have concerns.

We can easily assume that the high level gymnast needs more than 1800 calories per day, likely closer to 2200-2500 calories if not more depending on intensity, duration, and frequency of training.

Other factors, like injury status, can also effect energy needs.  In fact, it may come as a surprise that some injuries can increase the nutritional needs by 15-50% (3). It’s often thought that when a gymnast is injured or needs surgery that they must drastically decrease their nutritional intake, but this is not always the case.  Adjustments may need to be made to nutrition to maintain appropriate energy balance, but this is highly individual.

Performance Nutrition vs Normal Nutrition

 I like to think about the gymnast’s nutrition needs in two separate parts: normal nutrition and performance nutrition.

Normal nutrition encompasses the normal meals and snacks throughout the day that support normal growth and development. Obviously, these may need to be larger or more dense in specific macronutrients like carbohydrates or protein for the high level athlete, but their basic structure and pattern will remain even if the gymnast is injured, on vacation, or has retired from the sport. 

Performance Nutrition is the pre, intra, and post-workout fueling that a gymnast should implement to support their performance and recovery. This “layer” can be altered or reduced based on training and injury status, etc.

Carbohydrates are the Gymnast’s Fuel

Gymnastics is a high intensity anaerobic sport requiring carbohydrates as the main fuel source. Carbohydrates have long gotten a bad rap and thus many gymnasts are afraid to adequately fuel their exercise. A gymnast needs at minimum 5 g/kg bodyweight per day (4) of carbohydrates.  For the 125 lb gymnast, this is around 280 g carbohydrate per day. These should be evenly distributed amongst meals, snacks, and appropriately apportioned during exercise. It goes without saying that a gymnast needs to have adequate overall nutrition before looking at nutrient timing, etc.

The goal of intra-workout carbohydrate supplementation is to optimize performance by providing the fuel source at a rate that matches usage after glycogen (carbohydrate) stores.

Aerobic sports, like running or cycling, are estimated to use 30-60 g of carbohydrate per hour (5), though research indicates some elite athletes are able to tolerate and benefit from 90-120 g carbohydrate (6) per hour. Additional carbohydrates (7) are needed after 90 minutes of exercise as this is the point where glycogen stores have been used.  However, there is data to support performance benefits when starting carbohydrate supplementation at 45-60 minutes (8) during more intense exercise.  It’s often thought that only aerobic sports need carbohydrate to benefit performance, but there is data to support the use during short bouts of exercise (9) like resistance training.

We can estimate for the high level gymnast that they may use anywhere from 10-30+ g of carbohydrate per hour when you observe each individual hour of a workout and the intensity (stretching versus floor versus high intensity conditioning circuit). Some gymnasts may need more or less than this, but for exercise beyond 90 minutes additional carbohydrate will further support optimal performance.

Time and time again I see high level gymnasts’ performance significantly increase when they implement what I call the “Performance Nutrition Strategy which encompasses their pre, intra, and post-workout nutrition and hydration. This is what we call “fueling for the work required” and is layered on top of daily normal nutrition that supports life, growth, and development. About 1.5-2 hours into the workout, they’ll start supplementing carbohydrate in amounts appropriate for their training intensity and duration.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of high level gymnastics programs that do not value the use of Intra workout carbohydrates and fluid. There are likely fears around the “sugar” or “weight gain” which is just a wide-spread fundamental misunderstanding of energy metabolism. This is certainly a topic that warrants more education and awareness.

But What About the Carbs and Sugar!?

All carbohydrates are broken down into their most basic building blocks: fructose, glucose, or galactose. There is a lot of fear and misinformation surrounding this food group and thus leaves many gymnasts under fueled.

Common sources of carbohydrates include fruits, starches (potatoes, grains), and sugars (honey, maple syrup, sucrose aka table sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin, etc).

The differences between all of these sugars are their composition (how quickly they are broken down in the body) and the additional vitamins/minerals they may contain.

One common misconception around carbohydrates is focusing only on their glycemic effects, or how quickly they will turn into glucose and appear in the bloodstream. The presence of fat, fiber, and protein alter their rate of appearance as glucose in the blood stream and thus nullify the glycemic index of a certain food as most are not consumed in isolation. This is not something that athletes need to get hung up on as current research (10) doesn’t support any advantage over pre-workout low GI carbohydrate vs high GI. Athletes need to choose carbohydrate sources that are best tolerated and accessible.

Another misconception around carbohydrates is their association with insulin and insulin being something “bad”. Simply, insulin is a hormonal messenger produced by the pancreas in response to sensed increase of glucose in the blood stream. The body is very capable of tightly regulating blood glucose within a specific range and issues with overproduction of insulin are seen in specific conditions like pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, hormonal conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (only some cases), and type 2 diabetes.

Carbohydrates, specifically sugar, do not cause type 2 diabetes. Type two diabetes is a complex disease state that stems from excessive adipose tissue (body fat) and long-term overstimulation of the pancreas from excessive caloric consumption over time.

In terms of inflammation, excessive sugar will lead to inflammation. But, “excessive” has to be considered within the context of one’s overall diet and energy needs.

The last fear surrounding carbohydrate is that they are associated with “weight gain”, but again this is something taken out of context. In terms of weight loss, any diet works (low carb, low fat, etc) as long as the diet causes you to be in a caloric deficit. Carbohydrates in and of themselves do not cause weight gain unless consumed in excessive quantities beyond an individual’s nutritional needs, overtime and just like any other nutrient (fat or protein).

Some carbohydrate foods, often thought as white bread, chips, cookies, sugary cereal, etc are highly processed (11), hyperpalatable (super tasty), and when mixed with salt, sugar, and fat are easier to overeat than less processed, whole food carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A recent study (12) showed that individuals will spontaneously eat more ultra-processed foods which is why focusing on whole foods and “carbohydrate quality” in the diet is important.

Carbohydrate Quality

We sometimes separate carbohydrates into “complex” versus “simple”, referring to the presence of fiber and more complex molecules like whole grains, fruits, and starches versus simple sugars like table sugar, maple syrup, honey, or isolated fruit juice or sugary beverages.

Most meals and snacks should be comprised of high quality carbohydrates that are nutrient dense, meaning high amounts of vitamins/minerals/antioxidants/fiber. This encompasses all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fibrous starches.

It is beneficial to have mostly complex carbohydrates at meals and snacks outside of practice as these will release more slowly and give longer-lasting energy and more stable blood glucose control. During a workout, you want quicker carbohydrates from either simple carbohydrate sources (fruit juice, sports drink) or low fiber complex carbohydrates (fruit, dried fruit, low fat/protein granola bar, pretzels, etc) with very minimal fat, protein, fiber. Carbohydrates such as fruits (especially those high in fiber), vegetables, whole grains, fibrous starches/tubers would be considered “high quality” carbohydrate based on their vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, and fiber content.

 

The Demonization of Sports Drinks

There is a lot of fear around sports drinks which, when broken down, are a 6-8% carbohydrate solutions with added electrolytes (sodium, potassium) to facilitate optimal hydration in high heat and humidity environments. The carbohydrate source used in these beverages is typically sucrose, a mixture of glucose and fructose and commonly known as table sugar. Other sources like dextrose or maltodextrin are made of glucose molecules and are quickly digested in the body, which is needed during intense exercise.

It takes about 15-20 minutes for carbohydrates to be digested and broken down into their most basic building blocks which are then transported across the small intestine (13) and into the blood stream. From there, the glucose can reach the brain and muscles which is especially important during high intensity exercise.

Often beverages like sports drinks and juices are used out of context in the general public health sense. For instance, school children are often depicted as drinking large quantities of juice or sports drink during and after-school. These beverages are very sweet and are often marketed to children/adolescents with their favorite sports heroes or TV show characters. The quantity of these beverages can easily exceed the child’s nutritional needs and thus provide a surplus of calories that can lead to unwanted weight gain and thus contribute to childhood obesity. This issue is much more complex than I’ve described, but you cannot make a blanket statement that juice or sports drinks are “bad”, “fattening”, or “toxic” when they are used in the appropriate context.

The is nothing inherently wrong with choosing a sports drink over a whole food source of carbohydrates during a workout like fruit, pretzels, etc. I encourage my athletes to “maximize nutrition when able”. If they are short on the fruit and vegetables, then during practice could be another opportunity to fit in some antioxidants/vitamins/minerals along with the carbohydrates (fruit or whole grains versus sports drinks, gummies, etc). If they’ve had several servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day and/or have digestive issues with whole food sources of carbohydrate, then a liquid source like a fruit juice or sports drink is the optimal choice. Blood flow into the stomach is impaired during exercise, so Intra workout is not the time for mixed meals or snacks containing protein, fat, or fiber.

There is a big difference between sipping on 40 oz regular sodas all day versus using a liquid carbohydrate source to replace the carbohydrate used during exercise, especially when whole-food carbohydrates may not be tolerated well by some athletes. The recommendation is to keep added sugars in the diet to less than 10% of total calories (14), and for the high level gymnast this would be less than 60-75 g add sugars per day. But again, this is a public health recommendation and it’s more important that the athlete is getting enough nutrition throughout the day to support their performance.

Why a Gymnast Does Not Have to “Eat Clean”

Clean eating goes right along with the dogma of “sports drinks are bad, toxic, and gymnasts shouldn’t use them”.

Clean eating is an arbitrary term born out of food blogs, “health and wellness” (15) experts, and fitness gurus like Tosca Reno who promoted the use of this fad diet by bodybuilders to create a caloric deficit. Just “eat clean to get lean” is a very misguided statement. Eating clean does not guarantee adequacy of nutrition. Typically “clean eating”(16) refers to stripping away added sugar, salt, and preservatives that are used in mass-produced foods. While there is nothing wrong with being mindful of these added ingredients and aiming to consume more “whole foods” that are close to their natural state, it is impossible to eat clean 100% of the time as we are not always in control of our food. Trying to be “perfect” with your nutrition is often characterized as orthorexia (17), though not an official DSM-V eating disorder, it can easily lend to anorexic, binge eating, or bulimic-like behaviors.

The other issue with clean eating is it can easily dichotomize food into “good and bad” and can set up a gymnast for a lifetime of struggle with food anxiety and guilt. Clean eating can also take away a gymnast’s ability to eat real meals where they may not know every exact ingredient used. Part of normal eating is being able to eat whatever, whenever, and wherever.

Adolescents think in extremes, and thus when you tell them to restrict or eliminate certain food or foods groups or to “eat clean”, they will often take this to the extreme.

There is a lot of data on eating disorders beginning (18) with dieting and restriction in adolescence, and thus telling young gymnasts to not eat certain foods or food groups (that they likely love) does not set them up for a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. We all want what we can’t have, so when you tell someone they can’t have X foods, it becomes all they want or can think about, and then there is a lot of guilt and shame around that food if consumed. And, there is no data to support eliminating any certain food group or nutrient in the name of “health”, excluding medical conditions that warrant restriction like food allergies, celiac disease, etc.

Given the evidence that 50-65% of gymnasts struggle with some form of disordered eating (19), it is paramount that we take great care with the language we use around food.

Instead of focusing on “clean eating”, gymnasts should look at the big picture of their diet and learn to fuel and nourish their bodies. Most of the foods within meals and snacks need to be high in nutrients like quality protein, healthy fats, and necessary vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. “Most of the time” does not mean “all of the time”, and I’d argue that being able to enjoy the “fun foods” without guilt or shame is part of physical and mental health. Being able to eat out with friends and enjoy meals where you don’t know all the ingredients is an important aspect of food which is social, cultural, and emotional as well as “fuel”. This is what would be considered “flexible eating” (20) and is linked to lower rates of body image concerns and disordered eating.

In Summary

As you can see, nutrition is a highly contentious and multi-faceted topic that gets “religious” for a lot of people. Myths and misguided advice is perpetuated as “truth” and thus lead to outdated practices that not only provide a lack of benefit to the gymnast but can cause harm and suboptimal performance. Overgeneralizations about nutrition are rarely true, and nutrition must always be considered within the appropriate context for a specific individual. To continue moving forward and creating a positive culture in the sport of gymnastics, we all must be able to examine our own biases and beliefs about nutrition. If have further questions or concerns, feel free to reach out at [email protected].

Want To Learn More?

If you loved this info, and want to check out more from Christina, then you absolutely must jump on her jam-packed nutrition course for high-level gymnasts and parents/coaches looking for the highest quality education on gymnastics nutrition. Learn exactly what you need from an expert in the field on how to fuel for performance, have a healthy relationship with food, and reach your best in gymnastics.

Her course “The Balanced Gymnast: Fundamentals” is on sale THIS WEEK ONLY and her huge discount expires this Sunday. So, make sure you jump on it before it goes quick. Find out more by clicking below,

The Balanced Gymnast: Fundamentals Online Course

References / Works Cited

  1. Reed GW. Hill JO. Measuring the thermic effect of food. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 63, Issue 2, February 1996, Pages 164–169, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/63.2.164
  2. CSC and ACSM Guidelines General Physical Activities Defined by Level of Intensity
  3. Tipton KD. Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries. Sports Med. 2015;45 Suppl 1:S93-S104. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0398-4
  4. Dallas G. Nutritional recommendations and guidelines for women in gymnastics: Current aspects and critical interventions. Science of Gymnastics Journal. 2017
  5. Cermak NM, van Loon LJ. The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Med. 2013;43(11):1139-1155. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0079-0
  6. Viribay A, Arribalzaga S, Mielgo-Ayuso J, Castañeda-Babarro A, Seco-Calvo J, Urdampilleta A. Effects of 120 g/h of Carbohydrates Intake during a Mountain Marathon on Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage in Elite Runners. Nutrients. 2020;12(5):1367. Published 2020 May 11. doi:10.3390/nu12051367
  7. Kerksick, C.M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al.International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 33 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  8. Cermak NM, van Loon LJ. The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Med. 2013;43(11):1139-1155. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0079-0
  9. Krings, B.M., Rountree, J.A., McAllister, M.J. et al.Effects of acute carbohydrate ingestion on anaerobic exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 13, 40 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-016-0152-9
  10. Burdon CA, Spronk I, Cheng HL, O’Connor HT. Effect of Glycemic Index of a Pre-exercise Meal on Endurance Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2017;47(6):1087-1101. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0632-8
  11. Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake [published correction appears in Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226]. Cell Metab. 2019;30(1):67-77.e3. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
  12. Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake [published correction appears in Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226]. Cell Metab. 2019;30(1):67-77.e3. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
  13. Chen L, Tuo B, Dong H. Regulation of Intestinal Glucose Absorption by Ion Channels and Transporters. Nutrients. 2016;8(1):43. Published 2016 Jan 14. doi:10.3390/nu8010043
  14. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 – 2020. Cut Down on Added Sugars.
  15. Allen M., Dickinson K., Prichard I. The Dirt on Clean Eating: A Cross Sectional Analysis of Dietary Intake, Restrained Eating, and Opinions about Clean Eating among Women. Nutrients. 2018, 10(9), 1266.
  16. McCartney Margaret. Margaret McCartney: Clean eating and the cult of healthismBMJ 2016; 354 :i4095
  17. Athletes In Aesthetic and Weight Class Sports at Risk. NEDA Infographic. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/athletes-eating-disorders
  18. Gretchen Kerr, Erica Berman & Mary Jane De Souza (2006) Disordered Eating in Women’s Gymnastics: Perspectives of Athletes, Coaches, Parents, and Judges, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18:1, 28-43, DOI: 1080/10413200500471301
  19. Linardon J., Mitchell S. Rigid dietary control, flexible dietary control, and intuitive eating: Evidence for their differential relationship to disordered eating and body image concerns. Eating Behaviors. 2017. 26; 16-22