With the Olympics in full swing, I was asked by CTV News to look at some of the diets that athletes eat. An interesting contrast would be the difference between an Olympic Weight Lifter who fuels their body with 3000- 8000 calories a day and the average Olympic Gymnast. The gold medalist Nastia Liukin she says her daily intake is only 1,200 calories. A person who sits on a couch all day and watches movies requires 1600 to live!
A NCAA survey showed 51% of gymnastic clubs admitted their club members suffer from eating disorders. The concern is that the actual numbers of young gymnasts who struggle with excessive dieting, anorexia and bulimia may be as high as 62%. (1)
Why you may ask? Gymnastics is a judged sport. In many other athletic events the first person to cross the finish line, wins. In gymnastics, it is the person who achieves the highest score that succeeds. Given the fact that certain aspects of judging can be subjective, appearance is important. The pressure for physical perfection is enormous. There is a startling trend in the size expectations of female gymnasts. In 1976 the average size of the U.S. team was 5’3” and 105 pounds. In 1992, the team had shrunk to an average of 4’9” and 88 pounds. (2)
In the groundbreaking article, “Dying To Win” one gymnast recalls how her club coach would punish team members if they exceeded their assigned weight by "abusing them verbally, withholding meals, and confining them to a 'fat room”. (3)
Α numbers of studies have shown that gymnasts, especially females, often consume levels of vitamins and minerals, which are below the recommended levels. (4)
Energy expended: 500 calories per hour
Diet Ratio: Suggested Balanced Diet- 25% fat /25 % protein/50% carbohydrate
Actual Diet Consumed: Low Cal or Low Carb
Female Caloric Range: 350- 1250 calories
Meal Timing: Very light before competition. 5 times a day
Event Day Breakfast: A 300 calorie fruit shake with protein powder is typical.
The average gymnast, both male and female, eat several times a day, all in small quantities: egg whites for breakfast, a small piece of chicken for lunch, small snacks of cheese and vegetables in between meals and maybe some fish and fruit for dinner.
One nutrient that is critical for bone growth and strength is calcium. Most vitamin-mineral supplements do not provide 100% of the needed calcium, so a calcium supplement would be a good choice for gymnasts. Gymnasts’ average calcium intake is as low as 600 milligrams a day—well below the 1300 milligrams needed for strong bones. Calcium can help to prevent stress fractures—a common occurrence in gymnasts.
In gymnastics, strict ‘Low Carb’ diets are also popular because unlike swimming or long-distance running, gymnastics is considered an “anaerobic” sport; one in which short, intense bursts of power are much more important than endurance.
In the well known 2004 Associated Press article by Eddie Pells “Lean and muscular, what do the Olympic gymnasts eat?”, gymnastic Olympian Stephen McCain is quoted as saying,
“Over the span of a three-hour workout, we’re probably only up on the equipment for 15 minutes. The longest routine for a man or woman is the floor exercise, which lasts between 60 and 90 seconds. Thus, having lots of complex sugars stored up — the kind produced by carbohydrates — does not help a gymnast that much. Those energy spurts are best provided by a diet high in protein. Most gymnasts try to get between 60 percent and 70 percent of their calories from proteins (like meats and cheeses), the rest from carbs (like whole-grain pasta, fruits, vegetables) and fats (like oils from peanuts). And, as has been proven by all the Atkins, South Beach and Zone diets so popular these days, high-protein regimens help gymnasts keep their weight down.” (5)
This article is still quoted on many websites and used by aspiring gymnasts to this day.
The Russian Gymnast Diet (RGD):
The Russian Gymnast Diet aka RGD is very dangerous. This diet was created by Russian Olympic Gymnast Irina Tschachina to fit the desired body style of the Olympic competition. At a height of 5’6”, Irina was was seen as too large so she corrected her ‘form’ by dropping her weight to 99lbs. Irina went on to win a silver metal and forever cemented the idea that this diet can help a young female gymnast succeed.
The RGD diet basically consists of a breakfast of a glass of fruit juice or a slice of calorie-reduced bread and a large cup of black coffee, a lunch of fruit salad or a medium apple and a dinner of 8 baby carrots or an apple. Non-carbonated drinks with no calories can be had without limits. The gymnasts who use this diet lose 5-11 lbs. in one week.
RGD is dangerous because without fat the brain cannot function correctly and the body cannot manufacture hormones. The diet is also void of protein. Protein builds muscle and helps the body avoid injury but it is also critical component for liver detoxification!
I am so sad to see hundreds of chat rooms and diet websites recommending this diet. When a website claims you can loose 5-11 lbs a week on a low protein, low fat diet, what they aren’t telling you is that you will be loosing muscle! The body will brake down muscle to run critical enzyme systems, borrowing it from other areas of the body such as the digestive tract.
An eating disorder is a compulsion to eat, or avoid eating that negatively affects one's physical and mental health. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common eating disorders generally recognized by medical classification schemes, with a significant diagnostic overlap between the two. Together, they affect an estimated 5-7% of females in the United States during their lifetimes. How can the stats for gymnasts be as high as 62%? This disordered eating seems to be a temporary state while competing and many report returning to normal eating patterns when they retire the sport.
It is sad that society can’t accept that young girls bodies turn into women. They say that hips and breasts can’t make it around the uneven bars or the vault with as much grace. It mirrors the belief that women with curves don’t look good modeling clothes on the runway or in a fashion magazine because the fabric cannot fall the way it does on the rack.
I wish we could turn back to a time when we celebrated the healthy female form. Here is a photo of the 1956 USA Squad. Observe that the team members are indeed women. In 2012, would it not seems more appropriate to call the sport girl’s gymnastics?
The USA Women's Olympic Team in 1956
Women's Olympic Team in 2012
What is the price gymnast pay in the long term? My concern is that watching the Olympics inspire young people to strive to become the ‘heroes’ they see on the screen. The change that needs to happen, to support the health of gymnasts, starts with the gymnast associations, coaches and parents. They need to help these girls embrace the beauty of becoming women and to see food as a tool to create a strong and thriving body.