If I had a dollar for every time a parent tells me their gymnast’s number one nutrition struggle was “eating too much sugar”, I’d be rich! Just kidding. But really…
Restriction breeds deprivation and subsequent compensatory behaviors.
Plain English: Tell a gymnast (or any human) they can’t have sugar, and that’s all they want. It’s human nature to want what we can’t have.
Sugar is not “toxic”. Sugar is not inherently “fattening”. Yes, we should limit the added sugars in our diet as they do not contribute valuable vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc. But, there is a place in the diet for sweet treats and “fun foods”. See here for more on this.
If you’re gymnast has what you think is a problem with sugar, I bet it’s because of the following 3 reasons:
1. You are over-restricting your gymnast’s diet.
Your job as the parent is to provide the “what” and “when” and your gymnast’s job is to choose “how much”. By over-restricting their diet and not allowing sugar or fun foods (chips, cookies, dessert, “junk food”), there is now a hyper-focus around these foods that shouldn’t be there. It is human nature to like sweet things, this starts in the womb and at the breast. Breast milk is sweet, so to worry that you have to serve your baby veggies first when introducing solids, so they don’t only like sweet tastes is short-sighted as breast milk or formula are already sweet, so they’ve been exposed. And this is OK.
I know as a parent you’re just trying to do your best to keep your gymnast healthy. You don’t want them to gain excessive weight and be embarrassed about their body or unable to perform their best. You don’t want them to struggle with obesity and the associated comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease, etc. You’ve heard that sugar contributes to inflammation and they complain about their body hurting, so you’re just trying to help. I don’t fault you one bit for trying to do what you think is best, but it’s likely time to re-evaluate your strategy that isn’t working.
Even if it was true that a no-sugar diet would solve all your health woes, the behaviors that stem from this extreme of restriction are likely causing more problems than your solving.
Sometimes I get parents come to me with their gymnast “food sneaking” and they’re really panicked and concerned, especially if this has been contributing to excessive weight gain. If you find wrappers, etc. in your gymnasts room, gym bag, car, etc. and you don’t allow these foods, it’s safe to bet they feel the need to sneak out of shame. They don’t want to get in trouble, disappoint you, or get lectured about how they shouldn’t be eating these foods. In a way, your over-restriction of them has forced them to engage in secret behaviors and part of the solution is to back off. In this 2016 study in the journal Appetite, children whose intake of sweet foods and junk foods was controlled by the parent tended to eat more of those foods.
I can say for myself that this was an issue growing up. My mother is an excellent cook who kept the food array very healthful and nutritious, but almost too nutritious. We weren’t allowed junk foods or sweets very often and rarely had dessert. This led me to be obsessed with these foods, especially chocolate and candy. When I first started gymnastics I would bring loose change from home to the gym and buy 2 packets of Reese’s Pieces every practice and eat them in secret. I remember in middle school I’d buy 2 Cosmic Brownies from the cafeteria at school each day as this was something my mother would never buy or allow. I was a pudgy child in elementary and middles school, and these food sneaking behaviors were not helping.
If she could have done it over, I’d have advised her to serve the “fun foods” more frequently so that my sister and I didn’t’ feel so deprived and like we had to “eat all the cookies” when she finally made some or we got them at a party, friend’s house, etc.
2. Your coaches have told your gymnast and her teammates that sugar is “toxic” and they must never have ANY.
Again, same phenomena Iisted above. You cannot control what the coaches tell your athlete, but you need to pay attention. Your high-level gymnast often spends more time at the gym that at home, and they will do just about anything to gain the approval of their coaches.
Coaches often mean well, but the advice they give in terms of nutrition is often misguided and informed by our sport’s checkered history with disordered eating and body image issues.
As a parent, do your part in helping to educate the other parents and athletes. Bring in a qualified nutrition lecturer to teach the parents and coaches about evidence-based sports nutrition for the gymnast.
Parents love that I take a realistic approach to nutrition because it works.
Five years ago, I would have told you and your gymnast to “eat clean” and “follow this meal plan”. If you couldn’t do it, I would have told you that you weren’t trying hard enough or didn’t want it badly enough. I quickly learned that this is not how behavior change happens.
Nutrition is not meant to be perfect which is why I support the 90/10 rule. Most of the time the diet is very nutritious with high nutrient density foods and the rest of it just doesn’t matter. One or two servings of the ‘fun foods’ per day is not going to ruin your athlete’s physique, health, or performance. Striving for 100% is more likely to cause them anxiety, guilt, obsessive compulsive behaviors, potential disordered eating, and weight/body image struggles. This is what we define as “rigid eating” and it’s not good.
3. You only sort of give your gymnast permission to enjoy the sweet treats and “fun foods”
The solution for learning to eat in a balanced and healthful way is giving your gymnast unconditional permission to enjoy all foods.
By allowing your gymnast sweets, in moderation (90/10 rule, 1-2 servings a day), they won’t feel over-restricted or like they have to “earn” the sweets.
Your gymnast will be able to enjoy the sweet treats or leave them, because they know they’ll be offered again anytime. This is what lessens obsession and cravings.
If you only sort of allow them to enjoy the sweet treats and fun foods, like on a day they worked out or ate their vegetables, the trust won’t be there. I know as a parent that you’re afraid if you allow sweets too frequently that your gymnast will eat too much, but it’s often the opposite that happens.
There’s a psychological phenomenon called “habituation” where the novelty of something wears off the longer you’re exposed to it. So, if you allow your gymnast to enjoy a cookie every day or a few pieces of chocolate, they’re not going to like them or crave them as much on the 5th or 10th day as the first. They’ll still enjoy these foods and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the intense obsession and wanting won’t be there as the “novelty” has worn off. This is a good thing.
When you put limitations around these foods, like only serving them once a week on a “cheat day”, the strong drive for these foods will not diminish. The goal is to get your gymnast to calm down around these foods which is done through exposure and “unconditional permission” to enjoy them.
Think about your own life. If you feel like you struggle with sweets, overeating, over-drinking, etc. I bet there is a component of guilt/shame and restriction that is intensifying your desire for these things. The same permission you’re to give your gymnast will also work for yourself and the rest of the family.
So how do you help your gymnast “stop eating so many sweets”?
Give them permission
Implement the 90/10 rule. Ask your gymnast what her favorite 10% foods are (sweets, chocolate, candy, chips, fried foods, etc.) and make a point to keep 3-4 of these in the house at all times. I know this is scary and you’re worried they won’t stop eating them but refer above to “habituation”. That cannot happen if you don’t expose them to the foods.
Serve them routinely
What does 90/10 look like? In my mind, it’s about 1-2 normal servings of the “fun foods” per day. So, 1-2 Oreos or 1 small bag of chips. This is not a giant muffin or Starbucks cookie that is 4-5 servings worth.
No diet or body talk
Stop using words like “good and bad foods” or “junk foods” which elicit guilt and shame. Food is food. Stop moralizing the food. If your gymnast is struggling with her weight or body composition, removing all these foods from the house and telling her they’re “bad” is only going to worsen the situation.
Model healthy food behaviors
Your job as the parent is to also model healthy behaviors around food and your body. Eat your veggies, show your gymnast you can also enjoy these foods in moderation without going overboard, take care of your health through proper sleep/stress management/exercise, etc. They are watching you more than you know.
I want to get help for my gymnast or want to learn more!
If this article was helpful but you still have questions about your gymnast, please shoot me a message or apply for 1:1 nutrition coaching if you think your gymnast has a problem and needs help. I work with high level gymnasts and help them find food freedom while pursuing elite performance. Those two things can co-exist, and I’d love to show you how!