The sport of gymnastics demands many forms of physical fitness with strength, endurance, power and flexibility needed for the different disciplines. Adolescents train several times for multiple hours to achieve these necessary skill sets. Improper fueling in the face of this consistent and rigorous activity will detract from ability to perform and recover well. Teenage gymnasts hoping to achieve success in this sport will wonder, what should a teenage gymnast eat?
Primarily, teenage gymnasts need to meet their elevated calorie requirements. Not only will under-eating cause poor energy and performance, but will also begin to affect health, growth and development. Young gymnasts should eat a balanced meal pattern full of nutrient dense foods such as lean protein, fiber rich carbohydrates and healthy fats. They should also avoid restriction by continuing to enjoy favorite treats in moderation.
In general, teenage gymnasts should consume 45-65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 10-30% from protein and 25-35% from fat. Gymnasts should stay adequately hydrated by drinking water throughout the day. Longer or more intense workouts may require a sports drink or another comparable beverage.
A teenage gymnast should eat nutrient dense foods such as whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils), seafood, eggs, lean meat/poultry, nuts, seeds and healthy fats to meet higher nutrient needs. Gymnasts should eat a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat at eating occasions without restricting any foods, nutrients or food groups. Some of the best meal ideas for teenage gymnasts to eat include rice bowls, baked potato and chicken, tuna salad wraps, PB&J sandwich, pasta with meatballs, fish and rice, breakfast burritos, oatmeal, hummus pitas, and Greek yogurt parfaits.
Read on to discover more about what a adolescent gymnast should eat and other nutrition related information.
What Types of Foods Should a Teenage Gymnast Eat?
Adequate intake of macro and micronutrients keeps a teenager performing at peak performance levels. These essential nutrients also boost recovery and overall health. Teenagers can improve their ability to meet these needs by including nutrient dense foods and avoiding restriction. Nutrients to emphasize include carbohydrates, protein, fat, iron, potassium, vitamin D, vitamin C, iron and calcium. However, an athlete needs adequate amounts of all nutrients, which is one reason to focus on creating a balanced and varied eating pattern rather than buying specific supplements or labeled “superfoods”.
In general, energy powered activities require carbohydrates. Any gymnast can attest to the energy depleting nature of performing various athletic endeavors. In fact, most gymnastic feats involve anaerobic activity, which heavily favors carbohydrates as fuel. For these reasons, adolescent gymnasts should consume carbohydrates with most meals and snacks.
When participating in preseason training, gymnasts often need a higher amount of carbohydrate per body weight. As training tapers around competitions, athletes may require fewer calories from carbohydrates. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests 5-7 grams(g) per pound (lb) body weight during more intense training. During the season and with lighter workouts, those needs fall to around 4-6g per lb of body weight. Post season recommendations depend on individual training efforts and circumstances.
Carbohydrate sources vary in nutrient and energy quality. Foods high in sugar may provide a short burst of energy, but ultimately results in an energy crash. Gymnasts will want to eat more of the carbohydrate foods that are also rich in nutrients such as whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, soy), yogurt and milk.
A teenage gymnast will find that poor protein intake negatively affects their ability to build muscle and recover. Protein also increases satisfaction with meals and helps stabilize blood sugar. The intensity of the sport means these growing adolescents need more protein than their peers. Generally, a teenage gymnast needs 1.2-1.4 g of protein per lb of body weight.
Nutrient dense sources of protein include seafood, eggs, lean meat/poultry, cottage cheese and other dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds. Spacing out protein intake throughout the day allows the body to best utilize dietary protein. Teenagers can achieve this frequency by consuming 10-30 grams of protein with each meal and snack or every 3-4 hours.
See my related posts about protein intake for athletes:
- The Best Protein Snacks for Teenagers
- How Much Protein Should Teenagers be Getting?
- Can a 14-Year Old Take Protein Powder?
- Can a 15-Year Old Take Protein Shakes?
- Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
Dietary fat sometimes gets a bad rap in the field of athletics. However, fat is an essential nutrient with important roles such as assisting in nutrient absorption, hormone health and providing energy. Teenagers who consume inadequate dietary fat are at risk for adverse health consequences, low energy and decreased hormonal health.
Some fats offer additional health benefits such as protecting the heart and decreasing inflammation. These unsaturated fats are found in plant oils, seafood, nuts, seeds, olives and avocado. Teenage gymnasts may want to assess their diet and add in more of these healthy fats.
A major electrolyte, potassium works to maintain good blood pressure and supports a healthy heart. Most fruits and vegetables offer a good source of potassium. So, teens who avoid produce may find themselves at risk for inadequate intake. Some top potassium foods include potatoes, dried fruit, bananas, dairy products, beans, avocado, spinach.
Nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin”, because the body derives most of its necessary vitamin D from sunshine. Gymnasts spend many hours inside and out of the sun, which increases the likelihood of a deficiency. A supplement may be required, but always speak to a healthcare professional before starting any supplement. Vitamin D can also be found in UV treated mushrooms, eggs, fatty fish, vitamin D fortified foods (milk, soy milk, orange juice).
Vitamin C is involved with the immune system, collagen production and reducing inflammation. All these functions aid a gymnast in staying healthy. Vitamin C foods include many fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, citrus fruit, strawberries and cruciferous vegetables.
The adolescent years mark a significant stage for healthy bones. In fact, by the 20’s bone growth slows dramatically and by the 30’s most individuals see no more bone growth. Adequate calcium significantly contributes to strong bones and other important functions. Yet teenagers often do not meet their requirements. In particular, female athletes with amenorrhea or a lack of menstruation often experience osteopenia due to the lack of estrogen. Calcium rich foods include dairy products, broccoli, leafy greens, almonds, legumes and fortified beverages.
Teenagers with decreased iron intake will experience lethargy and a poor immune system. Vegetarians, vegans and females (due to loss of blood with menstruation) experience a higher risk of low iron or anemia. Prevention of anemia occurs through eating iron rich foods. Those with iron anemia should speak to a healthcare professional as supplementation is usually required for treatment. Animal products provide significant amounts of iron. Plant protein like legumes as well as leafy greens and dried fruit will also provide iron. However, iron from plant based sources is less bioavailable. Teenagers should combine these foods with foods high in vitamin C to increase absorption.
While the listed foods offer a host of benefits to a young gymnasts, all foods can find a place in a balanced eating pattern. Gymnasts will find that enjoying favorite treats and snacks in moderation will not take away from their performance. On the other hand, rigid food rules and restriction can cause intense cravings, subsequent binging and decreased mental or emotional health. Severe restriction leads to malnutrition with associated effects of low immune system, frequent injury, decreased energy and overall poor health.
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See also: Best Meal Plan for Teenage Athletes (FREE Download)
What Role Do Parents Play in Ensuring Their Teenage Gymnast Eats Well?
Parents want the best for their children and teenagers do not always make the best choices, especially with food. Yet, while a parent may understand nutrition a bit more than the adolescent, enforcing food rules or trying to control a teenager’s diet often creates a less than ideal relationship with food.
Ellen Satter describes the division of responsibility associated with encouraging youth to become competent eaters. Parents are responsible for “what food is offered, where it is offered and at what time”. Youth should maintain the ability to choose “how much and whether they eat”. Children should never be placed on a diet unless under specific direction of a healthcare provider. Parents will want to offer a variety of foods from all food groups and avoid complete restriction or elimination of any food or nutrient.
Other tips to foster healthy eating habits:
- Eat dinner frequently as a family
- Make eating healthier a family effort
- Avoid diet talk or discussion about body size
- Cook food with the teenager
- Prepare balanced, but convenient snack options
- Fill pantry and fridge with more nutrient dense foods
- Set the example
- Do not participate in fad diets or extreme weight loss practices
Should a Teenage Gymnast Lose Weight for Improved Performance?
During the teenage years, youth undergo important maturation and growth. Teens need a certain amount of calories and nutrients to meet the energy demands of these processes. Weight loss results from a calorie deficit. Therefore, any attempts to lose weight will negatively affect crucial development.
The pressure for gymnasts to portray a certain body size can get in the way of athleticism when weight controlling behaviors result in under-fueling. Poor intake means less energy availability, lack of nutrients to build muscle, frequent injury or illness and decreased mental health.
Encourage young gymnasts to fuel properly and avoid comparing their body to others.
Support them in focusing on behavior goals unrelated to weight or body size to improve gymnastic success.
What Should a Gymnast Eat Pre-Competition ?
The food eaten in the hours before a competition can have a profound effect on an athlete’s ability to succeed. Eating the wrong foods or the wrong amount can cause gastric distress and low energy. Teenagers will find that what works for them may not always work for others. They should practice during pre-season to find the best dietary protocol. However, some broad guidelines can help teenagers steer clear of common problematic foods.
Avoid or limit these foods in the hours leading up to practice or competitions:
- High fat foods
- Fiber rich foods
- Foods high in sugar
- Artificial sweeteners
- Any alcohol (it’s illegal for teenagers and harms performance)
- Spicy foods (per tolerance)
- Any other known food triggers (dairy, too much fiber, etc.)
Instead, choose light meals or snacks high in easily digested carbohydrates and with moderate protein. These dietary suggestions also work well for the eating occasions that occur throughout the long hours of a gymnastic meet. Make sure to hydrate consistently with water during the day. Drinking a lot of fluid all at once will cause water sloshing and possible electrolyte imbalance. Intense activity or long duration may necessitate a carbohydrate and electrolyte drink such as a sports drink.
Snack ideas (30 min to 2 hours before)
- 1 slice toasted bagel with peanut butter
- Cheese and whole grain crackers
- Fruit and plain yogurt
- Trail mix with dried fruit
- Cottage cheese and fruit smoothie
Meal ideas (2-4 hours before)
- Egg breakfast burrito
- Tofu/ lean beef tacos
- Tilapia and rice
- Baked potato with chicken
- Tuna salad wrap
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
See also: The 25 BEST Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks For a Teenage Athlete
- Best Supplements for Teenage Athletes
- Nutrition Game Plan for Teenage Athletes
- What Should A Teen Athlete’s Diet Consist Of?
- Best Meal Plan for Teenage Athletes (FREE Download)
- Vegetarian Diets for Teen Athletes
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