What Do Olympic Gymnasts Eat?

Special K, chocolate milk, chicken, regular milk, granola bars, fruit, and veggies. That is, at least for Aly Raisman, the 18 year old team captain of the United States Olympic Women’s Gymnastic Team. Here’s a video of her showing you what she eats and why. Not so Paleo.

My question is simple. What would happen – I mean, how much stronger would these athletes be if they ate Paleo? I wonder that when I see my super strong rock climber friends eating a SAD diet. They’d be superheroes if they fueled themselves properly.

We’re all given a certain genetic potential, I think, and some athletes certainly achieve a whole lot even when they eat copious amounts of sugar, refined grains, and other foods we’d all be better without. But what if we weren’t told, as Aly Raisman was, that pasteurized, conventional chocolate milk has been “proven to be the best recovery food” on the planet ever to have existed? How much better at gymnastics would she be if she ate the foods she was designed to eat? She’s a beast. Please don’t get me wrong here: I am astonished by her strength, poise, balance, and gall. I’m just wondering how far these athletes could really take their sport.

A study recently came out in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition exploring what would happen if elite gymnasts did actually eat Paleo. Well, in this case it was a very low carb ketogenic diet. The authors stated that “The diet was based on green vegetables, olive oil, fish and meat plus dishes composed of high quality protein and virtually zero carbohydrates..” After 30 days on this diet, which I think is a fair amount of time for them to adapt, they found there were no significant changes in strength. The only difference they found was that the athletes had lost weight in the form of fat. The good news is they did a research study on the efficacy of low carb diets on elite athletes! So many coaches and athletes are still so focused on carbs carbs carbs being the answer, especially refined ones. This is a step in the right direction.

But perhaps this study answers my question. Maybe they wouldn’t be any stronger at all if they ate Paleo… But maybe given a longer period of time on the diet, they would excel. Or maybe given just the right macronutrient ratio with Paleo foods, the women would start being just as strong as the men currently are. Maybe we just need to tinker a little more with this idea to make our Olympians into (even bigger) superheroes, after all.

Maybe I need to apply to be the nutritionist for the Olympic gymnastics team in 2016…


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  1. Jade

    Neely I completely agree! My son has been involved in Taekwondo for over two years. He eats primarily paleo foods. He is 5 and is ripped and very strong. The boys can do several free hanging pull ups without practice. He has a class mate who is heavily involved in sports as well but eats a diet of donuts, soda and the like. He looks sickly skinny no muscle definition at all. I’ve concluded the very apparent difference between the two is most difinitevely the way I nourish my son’s growing body. Paleo could revolutionize the Olympics as we know it, I’m sure!

  2. Mahindra Raj

    I am so excited about this news and at least a study shows that Low or zero carbohydrate diet (even for 30 days) like the Paleo Diet can lose weight better than a low fat diet.

  3. Allison

    Maybe we’d all be Olympic gymnasts if we were raised paleo from birth ;)

  4. Lisa

    I am a 26 year old adult gymnast, who has recently adopted a fairly heavily paleo diet. Within three weeks not only did I lost about 8 pounds without trying, but I also started being able to do some skills that I had never done before, because I felt more “springy” and powerful. I am very excited about my new eating habits and I look forward to seeing how many more gymnastics skills I will be able to learn!!

  5. Jason

    Surprising to hear something like that from such an elite athelete. Imagine being able to see results from her on a Whole30 challenge.

  6. Naomi Most

    Well, to be honest, chocolate milk has a lot going for it:

    whey protein (spikes insulin, super fast digesting)
    casein (spikes insulin but unravels protein slowly for hours)
    glucose (replenishes glycogen and spikes insulin)
    theobromine (mild stimulant and anti-depressant)

    Would a sweet potato and meat be “better” somehow? Not really; it would probably make her perform worse, if that were her recovery meal.

    Just because slow-digesting, low-glycemic meals are good for the general nonathletic populace doesn’t mean the same is true for athletes.

  7. Lena

    Aly is sponsored by Kellogg’s and that’s why she’s promoting special k. Most of the elite gymnasts are known to be on diets of mostly proteins in the form of chicken and fish and otherwise fruits and vegetables, with minimal other carbs.

  8. Nancy

    Gymnasts need complex carbs paired with a lean protien. They definitely do not need a ridiculous amount of protein as is believed to be king by some diets. Excess protein can cause issues such as kidney stones and protein is not stored- it is either utilized, converted or flushed. Not enough carbs is called starvation. The Atkins diet is essentially starvation. Paleo can be borderline starvation if not done properly. The body needs carbs to function, not a carbo-load worth of carbs…. But you have to remember that ELITE level gymnasts train 30- 40+ hours per week (I was a gymnast and I coach pre-elites, for reference). The carb allowance of low carb diet protocols are just not sutible. Maybe a 26 yr old hobbyist in the sport, average level 10/non-competitive elite who let real life set in and put on excess weight during an off time, or a Junior Olympic level competitor that has too high of body fat percent may see athletic gains by the quick drop in body mass, but for today’s elite gymnasts, starvation is not an option. The level of difficulty of the sport is getting so high that lack of proper nutrition will result in rampant bone breaks, stress fractures, or other injuries- killing an already ridiculously short career window. I am not avocating for the consumption of empty carbs as the main intake of carbohydrates, but the sugar content in a glass of chocolate milk will have zero impact on a gymnast’s overall performance or gains if they are eating a balanced diet. They are already, pound for pound, the strongest humans on planet earth- selected out of hundreds of worthy elites down to a mere 5 for the Olympic Games- and as the study cited indicates, dietary changes from what they were already practicing made no noticeable difference in performance. Form follows function. They can do what they do because of genetics and training techniques above all else, and even, I may boldly say that in some cases, above devout nutrition practices. When it comes to power and strength, no other type of elite athlete ( and certainly not your crossfit/ paleo superman) can even play with elite gymnasts- they are untouchable. I love paleo and and programs like crossfit for what they have done for society’s viewpoint on what a healthy lifestyle means…. But just because it works for you doesn’t make it the end-all-be-all….. Follow all of the science behind your lifestyle decisions- not just the research that models your own beliefs.

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