No sugar, no problem: What do college gymnasts eat?

By Lindsey Boyd:

A physically strong gymnast has a strong body but an even stronger mind.

That mind is one that’s bred to resist sugary temptations and fats, a conscience that persuades her into believing she is secure in her own body and an inspirational mouth with a knack for throwing away the garbage of negative thoughts that clutters her mind.

The gymnasts at San Jose State train three to four hours a day but spend a lifetime toning their minds for mentally strenuous feats. Just as practice is repetitive, SJSU senior Rachel Heinl explains that dietary habits are routine as well.

“I normally have around two eggs with ham. I try to put some kind of protein or vegetable in there, so spinach. And then oatmeal and peanut butter,” Heinl said.

Across the board, gymnasts from San Jose State, nationally ranked teams like No. 3 UC Berkeley and Team USA gravitate toward eggs and protein for breakfast with oatmeal on the side for extra energy. A large breakfast is pivotal to getting them through several hours of practice.

A common staple in any gymnast’s diet: peanut butter.

Peanut butter is folded into oatmeal, slapped on a half of slice of whole wheat bagel, or eaten in spoonfuls straight from the jar. It’s a quick and easy source of high calories with protein and fat.

“We are big peanut butter people,” said UC Berkeley sophomore gymnast Jessica Howe.

College gymnasts are still expected to go grocery shopping and cook their own food which is difficult for freshmen transitioning from home. For convenience, freshmen at UC Berkeley go to the dining halls where, according to Howe, they have good healthy options.

Finding good options at San Jose State can be more difficult.

“They have chicken burgers or hamburgers and you go and take the chicken and just don’t eat the bun,” Heinl said. “You make your own food so that you can customize it. It’s hard.”

SJSU head performance coach Gary Uribe and his assistant Greg Segrove attest to providing their athletes with cheat sheets in the dining commons so that athletes can pick and choose the healthiest options.

“It comes back to education nutrition,” Segrove said who works with many SJSU athletes. “I give a lot of them weight-gain or weight-loss cheat sheets with simple template format that says here are good protein options and here are good vegetable option sources.”

SJSU athletes are given notebooks and lectures on proper eating habits by their coaches. Ironically, under SJSU’s athletic performance website, the helpful links to “Eating for recovery” or “hydrate right” do not work.

Gymnasts not only fend for themselves when it comes to food and balancing school with sports, but they’re also responsible for refusing parties and alcohol. SJSU gymnasts have a dry season from December to April. For UC Berkeley, their dry season is a dry year.

“Our parties are hot chocolate parties,” Howe said. “Even though the college scene is fun, we have made it as such that our team is so close that we would rather spend time with each other.”

The gymnasts may not be sipping alcohol, but they are expected to fill their gatorade bottles with water constantly during the day. Drinking enough water is a key element of a gymnast’s diet for practice and competition.

“It wouldn’t matter if their nutrition looked perfect if they weren’t hydrating perfectly,” said UC Berkeley assistant coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell.

The higher the level of gymnastics, the more pressure gymnasts have to hold each other accountable for their diet. Their interventions aren’t over alcohol, but are centered around unhealthy eating choices.

For instance, former Team USA gymnast Romina Gupta said that she felt pressure to eat a certain way in front of her coaches or teammates.

“We were told to eat salads and pure proteins and were definitely not allowed to eat processed sugars,” Gupta said.

Gymnasts need to have strong self-discipline to shy away from sugar and chips. Despite protein-based and sugarless eating habits, gymnasts argue that they can eat and drink like a “normal” person too.

“Normally I get up and make coffee,” Heinl said. “Coffee is necessary.”

In fact, some may even treat themselves to dessert a few times a week contrary to belief that dessert is bad. By dessert, they mean low-fat ice cream or greek yogurt with granola.

Indulging time is right before competition. SJSU gymnasts have a ritual of eating a piece of dark chocolate in the last seconds before a meet starts. At UC Berkeley, gymnasts can be seen with an M&M bag in hand as they munch away throughout the meet.

“I think it’s good to have those things,” said UC Berkeley senior gymnast Emily Richardson.  “If you have that ‘Oh I can’t’ in the back of your mind, you’re trying to compensate … sometimes thinking about it too much kind of leads you downhill. Because that’s happened to me.”

A gymnast’s beam performance is analogous to her dietary habits. Every step is precisely judged for balance just as every meal is carefully selected to provide a balanced diet. It’s only after she dismounts and sticks her landing that she’s free to bask in her glory and be rewarded with a treat.

The recipe for her strict dietary regimens is difficult to follow, but the end result is immeasurable if followed correctly.

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