Between family members, coaches, and medical professionals, it takes a village to keep a gymnast happy, healthy, and performing at their best. Every gymnast deserves to have an amazing TEAM supporting them, and a nutrition professional should be part of that team.

The nutritional components from foods are the building blocks of every single part of the body and ultimately give you the energy for everything you do – not only in gymnastics, school, and the rest of everyday life, but keeping you alive, growing, and developing. Proper growth and development, especially when it comes to muscle growth and strength, require a slew of nutrients from various foods. Brain function and focus also require energy. Of course, if you want to recover from a hard practice, an injury, or prevent future injuries, you need to provide these building blocks to maintain and promote health. If you’re not considering this an important part of your training, it will be hard to be at your best.

Finding a nutrition professional to work with you (or your gymnast) can be tough. There are many “nutrition experts” out there – how do you know who is best for you?”

Here are 4 things to help you determine if a nutrition professional is a good fit to add to your team:

1. Their Credentials:

Ever wonder what the difference between a “nutritionist” and a “dietitian” is?

Here in the U.S., there is no standard to call yourself a “nutritionist.” A nutritionist can have some education or training (I’ve come across some wonderful people with B.S.’s, M.S.’s, and Ph.D.’s in nutrition), but this is not guaranteed. Before they begin practicing, many “nutritionists” only take an online course, some as short as an hour. There is no code of ethics for nutritionists; many do not promote evidence-based practices and are not adequately trained to deal with this subject tactfully and in a way that helps rather than harms.

Instead, look for the “RD” Credential (it may also be listed as RDN or LDN). This means that they are a Registered Dietitian, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, or Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist. An RD is a legally protected medical license (like MD, PT, AT, etc.). To become an RD, a professional nutritionist must:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from an accredited program (where coursework requires everything from microbiology and organic chemistry, to psychology, food science, and of course medical nutrition therapy). Four to five years of education
  • Most have a master’s degree (which will be required by 2024 for licensure). One to two years of education
  • Complete a 1,200+ hour Dietetic Internship of supervised practice (after matching into a highly competitive program). One year of education
  • Pass a national board exam.
  • Maintain a minimum of 75 continuing education credits every five years to stay up-to-date on the latest research and practice.
  • Abide by a code of ethics.

Registered Dietitians are THE nutrition experts (with a minimum of five years of formal education). Other credentials that indicate a dietitian may be appropriate to work with a young gymnasts include, but are not limited to:

  • Master’s Degree (M.S., M.Ed., MPH, etc.) or PhD
  • CSSD (Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics)
  • CHES (Certified Health Education Specialist)
  • CSP (Board Certified Pediatric & Adolescent Specialist)
  • CEDS/CEDRD (Certified Eating Disorders Specialist, Certified Eating Disorders Specialist Registered Dietitian)
  • Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor

2. Their Background:

Just like you wouldn’t go to a heart doctor to fix your broken foot, dietitians also have specialties. Many nutrition providers are great at their job. Still, if they don’t understand sports nutrition or the nuances of gymnastics, this could be the difference between you making progress and standing still, and in some cases, they can even cause more harm. Look for a dietitian who knows about the sport of gymnastics (and the sport’s culture surrounding food, weight, and body image). They could be a former gymnast, have a gymnast in their family, been around the sport, or they want to learn more about the sport and have taken courses in gymnastics to better understand the training environment. A provider who understands the sport of gymnastics can better help with your treatment plan.

3. Their Focus:

Gymnastics has a long and complicated history with nutrition, disordered eating, and aesthetics. And as we look back, so much of this stems from an emphasis on appearance and a number on a scale. The reality is, the scale alone will not tell you any useful information about a gymnast’s health, performance, or potential. However, many nutritionists (or even dietitians unfamiliar with gymnastics) still take a weight-focused approach, which is unnecessary and inappropriate when dealing with CHILDREN.

A dietitian working with gymnasts should be more concerned with their health, their body’s personal biofeedback (aka things like energy, sleep, mood, training, health and injury history, etc.), and their performance than any number on a scale. All bodies are meant to be different, and that is normal. Trying to make your body look a way it was not meant to be will only lead to injuries, decreased performance, mental stress, and the possibility of developing a serious eating disorder. Make sure your dietitian agrees and aligns with this mindset.

4. Their Recommendations:

So many gymnasts I talk to are hesitant to work with a dietitian. They are scared that a dietitian will put them on a strict diet, take away their favorite foods, or make them eat foods that they don’t like. And honestly, I don’t blame them. I still hear so many “nutritionists”:

  • Prescribing strict diets to CHILDREN (more on why that doesn’t work here).
  • Requiring strict calorie counting or macro tracking (more on why that’s not ideal for young gymnasts here).
  • Pushing their personal beliefs (or unresolved nutrition issues) onto their clients.
  • Handing out rigid or cookie-cutter meal plans (if you’re curious, read more on why meal plans don’t work).
  • Using commercial tests that are not science-backed, valid, nor reliable.
  • Recommending unverified supplements or miracle cures (learn more about why unverified supplements can be harmful, especially for children under the age of 18).

The best dietitian will not put you on a diet or meal plan or tell you that you must or can’t eat any specific food (barring legitimate medical reasons). They will help you fit the foods that you do like into a customized plan that makes sense for you, all while encouraging and helping you explore and try new foods. Their recommendations will be backed by research and scientific evidence, and should be driven by YOU!

So remember, while a nutrition professional should be on every gymnast’s team, it is important to do your research and work with a licensed professional who knows and understands gymnasts and has a philosophy that aligns with your goals.

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This blog post was adapted from Kerry Bair, RD.