The Gymnast Diet
I have a nine-year old daughter who has just begun to truly compete in her field of gymnastics. While nutrition is important for every growing child, sons and daughters undergoing the rigors of this long-term, passionate sport need special diets in order to provide the nutrients they need.
Growing up is often enough to tax young bodies, so parents must pay careful attention to dietary needs and patterns. What follows is some advice from my daughter’s trainer, combined with consultations with a nutritionist who works with sports medicine, and some general suggestions for a gymnasts’ diet program.
Flexibility is Key
While Brittany’s coach is keeping her flexible on the mat, I look at it as my job to stay flexible with her meals and snacks. Because the training process involves days of rest, as well as periods of time when meets and competitions are less frequent, it’s crucial for me to help her maintain her good physical condition. That means, helping her to eat enough when the going gets tough, and adjusting the meal plans when training isn’t as intense.
Generally, gymnasts are told they should eat three meals a day with a light snack prior to working out. I also include a good multivitamin, year round, with a special enzyme capsule that helps with the inflammation that accompanies intensive training. While this may be sound planning for many, Brittany wasn’t doing as well with it, and prefers several smaller meals over the course of the day.
There’s been a lot of noise made about the negative impacts of carbohydrates. I can agree that for some, that’s true. For my daughter, however, nothing could be farther from the truth. Complex carbohydrates are the backbone of any gymnast’s diet. That means whole grains, leafy greens and plenty of other vegetables, and fresh fruits.
When people complain about carbs, what they’re usually thinking of are simple carbohydrates, like refined sugars and overly processed foods. But complex carbohydrates are stored in the muscle fibers as glycogen, and are critical for providing sustained, readily available energy that every gymnast needs.
The other 40 percent of your young gymnasts diet should be comprised of healthy fat and protein. Healthy fat can be found in foods like avocados, nuts and seeds, and oils. However, they should make up only about seven percent of the daily intake, and saturated fats should be avoided rigorously. Protein can be found in many of the same foods that contain healthy fats, and need not be only animal protein. Eggs, lean meats like poultry, and fish are the best sources of complete, lean protein.
Because availability of foods and preferences will vary, I won’t put down a specific diet. As well, depending on your young athlete’s metabolic needs, this will shift and change over the course of the year to accommodate increases in activity, growth spurts, or down time. It’s also important to balance when nutrients are taken together, in order to optimize digestion and usage.
• Breakfast should incorporate fresh fruit, whole grains, and protein in appropriate amounts. One example of this is a bowl of whole grain cereal with nonfat milk, fresh fruit, and yogurt. Alternatively, you could prepare a toasted bagel with peanut butter, fresh oranges—better than juice—and dairy.
• Lunch should be heavy on the veggies and fruits, some light protein, such as yogurt. hard cheese, nuts, or tuna fish, and toasted whole wheat bread. A snack before training in the afternoon will usually tide them over until dinner, and consists of a carbohydrate like granola with yogurt, which will provide the needed protein to sustain them during rigorous activity.
• Dinner should be lean protein, fruits and veggies, and whole grain bread or pasta. I love all the different ideas my nutritionist gave me, incorporating casseroles and soups into the family dinner plan has allowed us to eat together, with the same menu. This way, Brittany feels a part of family time, and her little brothers don’t complain that she gets special meals.
The gymnasts’ diet is a healthy one, packed with the essential materials and fresh foods they need to be a success. Nutrient-dense foods are important, which means choosing an orange instead of a doughnut for breakfast. It is not by any means a truly restrictive regimen, but focuses on fresh, whole foods, high-quality nutrients, and eating to fuel the movement of the body. We could all learn a few things by incorporating some of these food choices into our own daily routines.