It’s undeniable that gymnastics is a tough sport. The demands gymnastics puts on young gymnasts is beyond any other sport out there. Not only must gymnasts have the strength to perform challenging skills, they must also be lean in order to flip and tumble with ease. While strength and flexibility are components that are stressed inside the gym, one important element that often gets overlooked is nutrition. Without proper nutrition, gymnasts are more prone to injuries, can get frequent stress fractures, feel lethargic, have decreased performance, and develop amenorrhea or other hormone imbalances.
Not only is good nutrition necessary for gymnasts to perform well and maintain their health, it’s essential for their growth. Yet studies have shown that the average BMI (body mass index), body fat percentage, and daily energy intake of gymnasts are often lower than those of non-gymnasts. Clearly, then, many gymnasts are not getting the proper nutrition they need.
Additionally, top gymnasts know that good nutrition can give them an edge over their competition. When former Olympian Samanth Peszek was training for the Olympics, she knew that every single thing she did needed to help her hit her end goal of making the Olympic team. This included eating her veggies, which she hated, because she knew this would enhance her performance. So clearly nutrition is an important area of focus for top level gymnasts as well.
So what should my gymnast be eating, you ask? We know good nutrition can be a struggle for some gymnasts, especially those who are picky eaters, have sensory issues, or eat very little. In this article we give you the basics of proper nutrition so that you can have a baseline of what foods your gymnast should be eating. When in doubt, consult a certified nutritionist for individual guidance.
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In addition, researchers have come up with the following guidelines for “active” girls:
- Ages 4-8 need 1400-1800 calories per day
- Ages 9-13 need 1800-2200 calories per day
- Ages 14-18 need 2400 calories per day
*“Active” refers to children who walk the equivalent of 3 to 4 miles per day in addition to the light activity associated with day-to-day life.
When you look at these numbers, it’s clear that your growing gymnast should be consuming a significant amount of calories each day to sustain her activity level and development. So the first question you can ask yourself is: “Is my gymnast eating enough?”
If you have a gymnast who eats very little, try breaking down her meals into smaller mini-meals throughout the day. While “snacking” might be frowned upon, it’s important for smaller eaters to get the calories they need which might mean eating more frequently throughout the day.
Another way to tell if your gymnast is eating enough is to check her energy level. Is she often lethargic? Does she look like she’s barely making it through practice? While other factors can play a role in energy level, it’s important to consider the amount of food she’s eating as a possible cause of low energy.
If you’re not sure how to count your gymnast’s calories, have her keep a food log for a week. After the week is over you can look up the calorie count for each of the foods she’s eaten. You can then average her calories over the week to come up with a ballpark amount of a typical day’s worth of calories. It’s not unusual for children to eat more on some days than others so getting seven days of a food log is a good way to start. If you find she’s not eating enough you can bump up her calories by adding in healthy snacks throughout the day.
Number 2: What foods should my gymnast be eating?
While most people have heard of the USDA’s 2015-2020 dietary guidelines, more recently the Harvard School of Public Health revised the USDA’s guidelines to address certain deficiencies they found. In the kids’ version of their guidelines, a healthy meal consists of the foods in the image below:
While this guideline was not created specifically for athletes, it’s a great visual of what a healthy meal might look like for a child and is a great place for gymnasts to start.
Overall, the USDA and Harvard School of Public Health recommend eating a variety of vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, along with a variety of different protein sources and healthy oils. In addition, they recommend limiting the amount of added sugars, sodium, and saturated and trans fats in a child’s diet. Unlike the USDA, however, Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate recommends water as the optimal beverage for children, with milk limited to one small glass per day. The USDA is more heavy on the amount of milk but still recommends water as the best option to stay hydrated.
As a rule, Harvard School of Public Health suggests filling half a child’s plate with fruits and vegetables while splitting the other half of the plate between whole grains and protein. Again, this guideline was created for children without regard to sports yet offers a starting point for gymnasts. As they train more or go through periods of growth, gymnasts may need to tweak this guideline to fit their changing needs.
Number 3: How much of each food type should my gymnast eat?
While there’s no hard and fast rule, below is a general breakdown of what a gymnast can aim for in her daily nutritional needs. Again, gymnasts exercise for much longer than an average non-gymnast child so their nutritional needs are slightly different.
Carbohydrates should make up about 60-70% of a gymnast’s total caloric intake.
More specifically, because gymnastics is primarily an anaerobic sport, gymnasts need the majority of their calories to come from carbohydrates to help fuel their body. Carbohydrates are the most readily available source of food energy for the exercising muscle and nutritionists still stand behind the advice that athletes’ energy should mainly be derived from carbs. Think of carbohydrates as fuel for your gymnast.
Nutrient dense sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Gymnasts should eat a wide variety of different colors in their diet including various fruits and vegetables to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need.
Examples of nutritious carbohydrates include whole grain pastas and breads, brown rice, oatmeal, various forms of beans such as black and kidney beans, lentils, corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, grapes, peaches, and plums. This list is not exhaustive but gives you an idea of the types of healthy carbohydrates to include in your gymnast’s diet.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal, however. It’s equally important that your gymnast limits or avoids unhealthy carbohydrates such as french fries, white potatoes, white bread, white rice, pastries, and refined or enriched grains which contain very little nutritional value.
Protein should make up about 10-20% of gymnasts’ total intake.
Gymnasts need protein to help their muscles recover and repair. Protein is especially important because it helps gymnast’s muscles repair the microscopic tears that occur during practice. It’s the repairing of these tears that causes muscles to grow and protein is a vital component in this recovery process. As a result, it’s important that gymnasts get adequate amounts of protein throughout the day and especially after a workout.
The exact amount of protein a gymnast requires, however, has yet to be scientifically determined. Researchers agree youth athletes, in general, need anywhere between 1.0-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This equates to about 34 grams of protein per day for athletes between the ages of 9-13 and 46 grams of protein for girls ages 14-18.
Protein can come from animal or plant sources. Examples of animal sources would be lean meat such as lamb, pork, or beef, along with chicken, fish, and eggs. Examples of plant sources of protein include peanuts (and other tree nuts), chickpeas, quinoa, lentils, chia seeds, tofu, and edamame (opt for organic tofu and edamame to avoid modified soy).
Because protein gets absorbed by the body in smaller amounts, it’s important to include protein in every snack and meal instead of only packing it all into one meal like dinner.
Fats should make up about 25-35% of gymnast’s total intake.
Young athletes rely more on fat sources than adults do so healthy fat sources should be included in their diet, especially for gymnasts! Fat surrounds nerve cells and insulates organs and is vital for proper functioning.
However, it’s important that gymnasts get the right source of fats. Sources of healthy fats include nuts and nut butters, avocados, walnuts, almonds, tuna, salmon, and food cooked in olive oil. Fats such as fried foods, donuts, packaged and processed foods, fatty meats such as bacon, sausage, pepperoni, salami, and bologna should all be avoided.
Number 4: How much water does my gymnast need?
It’s important for gymnasts to stay hydrated.
The average person needs to drink about half their body weight to stay hydrated. For example, if you weigh 100 pounds you would need 50 ounces of water. Children, who are of all different weights and sizes, have varying hydration needs, however. Depending on how much they sweat and how hard they workout, their needs might be different from day to day.
A good rule of thumb is for smaller sized gymnasts to aim for 48 ounces per day and for bigger sized gymnasts to aim for 96 ounces per day. It’s also equally important for your gymnast to sip water throughout the day. She should have a 24 ounce bottle that she can take with her and sip from when she feels she needs to drink. Remember, once your gymnast starts to feel thirsty she is already dehydrated.
Stay away from Gatorade and other electrolyte sports drinks as a regular hydration source. While these drinks might be needed from time to time, the sugars and dyes in them can cause more harm than good. Avoid juice as well, which is primarily sugar, even 100 percent fruit juice.
Number 5: What is a healthy eating schedule?
Gymnasts need to eat frequently in order to maintain energy. Here is an example of how many times your gymnast might need to eat in one day:
- Mid-morning Snack
- Pre-workout snack
- Mid-workout snack
It’s vitally important that gymnasts eat immediately prior to their practice and that they have a mid-practice snack to keep up their energy. While not all gyms allow snacks, depending on the length of practice and gym policies around eating, if you find your gymnast struggling during practice it’s worth having a conversation with her coach to find out how she can grab a quick snack during practice.
Healthy Snacks for Gymnasts
It’s important that your gymnast eats every few hours. Aim to include carbohydrates, proteins, and some fat in your snack. Snacks should be around 100-300 calories.
Here is a list of 25 different healthy snacks for gymnasts:
- An apple or banana with peanut butter (or other nut butter)
- Greek yogurt with fruit
- Pita chips and hummus
- Apple slices and cheese
- Baby carrots and hummus
- Whole grain English muffin with almond butter and a drizzle of honey
- Cheese stick and clementine
- Grapes and cheese
- Celery sticks with nut butter
- Whole grain toast with nut butter and banana
- Avocado toast
- Cold pasta salad with veggies and a drizzle of olive oil
- Yogurt tube
- Mozzarella and tomato skewers
- Hard boiled egg and ½ of a whole grain English muffin
- Cheese and whole grain crackers
- Smoothie made with yogurt, frozen fruit, and milk
- Raisins and peanuts
- Steel cut oatmeal with nuts and a drizzle of honey
- Homemade trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, and whole grain cereal
- Turkey and avocado roll up with whole wheat crackers
- Peanut butter and banana quesadilla in whole wheat tortilla
- Cucumber slices and cream cheese
- Peppers with hummus
Some tips to get you started
- Always make sure your gymnast eats her breakfast. Gymnasts who go to school in the morning need fuel for their brains.
- Focus on whole foods rather than packaged and processed foods. Packaged products are processed and thus void of key nutrients. While it might be easier to grab a packaged snack or go through the fast food drive-thru for dinner, if you plan ahead you can create your own snacks and meals that contain much higher nutritional value that are actually filled with nutrients instead of void of them.
- Don’t be afraid of fat. It’s common for gymnasts to avoid fat for fear of gaining weight, however their bodies need fat to survive and to function at optimal levels. Just make sure your gymnast is choosing the right source of fats (from omega 3s and omega 6s) instead of reaching for fried foods and saturated fats.
- If your gymnast doesn’t like to eat, make her smoothies! You can pack a lot of superfoods into a blender and disguise it with bananas and other fruits.
- Sprinkle chia seeds onto foods or into drinks.
- It takes time for picky eaters to like new foods. Encourage your gymnast to try one bite of a new food each meal. It can take many exposures before she learns to like a food.
According to the Hospital for Special Surgery, a lot of gymnasts reach their peak in gymnastics when their calorie needs are at their highest. And yet many gymnasts are either not eating enough or are eating the wrong foods. It’s important that your gymnast eats foods that will fuel her body for optimal performance and health. Good nutrition can fend off overuse injuries, stress fractures, low energy, and hormone imbalances. In addition, your gymnast should aim to eat frequent meals throughout the day, making carbohydrates her main source of fuel. Protein is also important to help her muscles recover and repair themselves. Gymnasts should also eat adequate amounts of healthy fat to help with proper functioning of her organs. And most importantly, gymnasts need to stay hydrated throughout the day.