The Touchy Topic of Gymnasts and Body Weight, Eating Disorders and Nutrition (Part 2 of 4)

The Touchy Topic of Gymnasts and Body Weight, Eating Disorders and Nutrition (Part 2 of 4)

The Touchy Topic of Gymnasts and Body Weight, Eating Disorders and Nutrition (Part 2 of 4)

May 22, 2013
The Touchy Topic of Gymnasts and Body Weight, Eating Disorders and Nutrition  (Part 2 of 4)

I received this email from a former gymnast… (name has been changed)

Hi Rita, My name is Allison and I am 18 years old. I have since quit gymnastics, largely due to body weight issues. I had always been a generally healthy eater and at a healthy weight. When some drama went down at my gym I was feeling extra pressure to improve and was sucked into the “thin is in” mindset. I lost 20 pounds from my already slight 5’1’’ frame and then everything went downhill. I could hardly make it though practice, but would never think of skipping. My life revolved around the gym, exercising and very low calorie intake. Ultimately, it led me to the end of my time in the gym- which I resent. I dreamed of competing in college and I wish I hadn’t taken that path. I just wanted to share my story and hope it helps someone.

After last week’s blog I received several emails like Allison’s- all from former gymnasts who felt pressure to lose weight to the point of quitting the sport. Unfortunately, despite the progress that has been made in this area over the years, this is still a very real problem. It needs to be addressed so that parents and coaches can prevent what happened to Allison.

Obviously, this is a very complicated and comprehensive topic that can only be touched upon in a short blog series. The goal here is to address the topic, provide some education and realistic strategies for preventing our gymnasts from developing eating disorders or quitting the sport they love.

What is a healthy body weight?

When a doctor tells you what you should weigh- they are probably using a height/weight table or a BMI (Body mass index) table. The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines healthy weight using BMI. Body mass index is a number calculated using height and weight (you can find BMI tables on the internet). The NHI indicates that a BMI between 19-25 is healthy, between 25-29 is overweight, and 30 or above is obese. These guidelines are based on statistics of disease and disorder prevalance and body weight. There is a greater prevalence of many lifestyle related diseases and disorders, (ie: diabetes, heart disease, cancer), in individuals with a BMI of 30 or higher.

So, a doctor is most concerned about your health and getting patients into the “healthy” category based on BMI. With 35.9% of adults in the U.S. in the obese range and another 33.3% considered overweight- this is a real concern. But, chances are, your daughter is probably a fit gymnast and not in the overweight or obese category. This doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t feel pressure to be thinner.

The pressure to be thin in today’s society
The problem is that much of our society isn’t really concerned about BMI tables and achieving a true healthy weight. The problem is that much of our society is still obsessed with being skinny and thin- even at the expense of health.

In the college health class I teach, I require my students to watch at least one of the following videos. The Killing Us Softly series does a great job illustrating the pressure placed upon society by the media to be thin at any cost. I encourage you to watch these videos for a shocking, yet very real look at the world’s obsession with thinness and how it is thrust in the faces of our children every single day.

Slim Hopes
Killing Us Softly 3: 
Killing Us Softly 4: 
Campaign for Real Beauty

Despite modern technology and all of the resources readily available today to obtain valid, reliable information and education on health and wellness, the pressure to be thin, almost at any cost, is very real in social media.

Now, add to the equation a gymnast or other athlete, also feeling pressure to be small and thin from their coach- possibly being led to believe that success is not achievable in a sport like gymnastics without being very tiny. This is just not true. I can tell you that not every member of the Fierce Five were under 100 pounds when they won the 2012 Olympic Team Gold Medal in gymnastics!

Body Composition vs. Scale Weight

While working on my graduate degree at Michigan State University back in the late 1980s I was involved in a research project dealing with weight loss and adults. The participants were divided into small groups and met weekly for educational sessions on health and wellness. They were asked to exercise at least 4 days a week for 30 minutes and they were asked to weigh-in on the scale each week. Many admitted in a follow-up anonymous survey that they lied about their exercise, skipped meals, and some even loaded their pockets with coins at the initial weigh-in to assure weight loss with future scale weigh-ins. And these were professional ADULTS. The pressure for them to succeed, even if it was via cheating and unhealthy measures, was acceptable to them!

Through my many years working in the weight management industry I have become increasingly AGAINST scale weigh-ins as a measure of success in body weight.

As illustrated in my example above, it is possible to show weight loss on the scale that doesn’t equate to better health, or even truth. Anyone can skip meals and starve and lose weight. Most initial weight loss from very low calorie diets or starvation are a loss of water weight. Future loss from this type of diet can be the result of the breakdown of muscle, including heart muscle and a decrease in metabolism. This can even lead to future weight gain due to a reduction in the body burning calories. (Next week, I will touch on the topic of eating disorders and the health implications of anorexia nervosa.)

In my mind, there is NO reason for a coach or even a parent to weigh an athlete on the scale. If an athlete is gaining body fat that is affecting their training or safety, they should focus on proper nutrition and possibly more aerobic exercise (gymnastics is mostly anaerobic). The measure of success should be improved performance or, if necessary, body composition. As in Allison’s example, she lost 20 pounds-- that looks great on the scale-- but she ended up so weak she couldn’t continue her gymnastics career. Being weak and depleted can also lead to a greater chance of injury in the gym.

How do you measure body composition?

At any rate, scale weight doesn’t tell the whole story. The number on the scale does not tell you how much of that weight is coming from fat and how much is coming from lean tissue (like muscle). You CAN lose weight on the scale and not lose much fat. The only way to adequately measure the make-up of body weight is through body composition.

There are many ways to measure body composition. Many can be inaccurate. The gold standard for athletes is via hydrostatic weighing. This, however, is not readily available in most areas. Bioelectrical impedance machines are available that measure body composition with a single touch, but can be inaccurate due to fluid variations in the body. Another, more available, form of measuring body composition is skinfold thickness. This method requires the use of special skinfold calipers and a trained professional.

Personally, I don’t believe body composition testing is necessary with gymnasts. If there is an issue with weight gain in an athlete that is training 20 or more hours a week, there are many other factors that can be addressed before just weighing or measuring the athlete and then telling them to lose weight.

Factors to consider when addressing body weight in gymnasts

A gymnast trying to lose weight is a touchy subject. As a parent, you need to ask yourself a few questions….

1) Who wants your daughter to lose weight? Is it her coach? Does she feel peer pressure? Is it you??
2) Is her weight a health concern? Does she really have fat to lose? Is she going through puberty? Is she eating an adequate, healthy diet? Does her training include some aerobic exercise?
3) Is your daughter’s body image distorted?

Sometimes, during puberty, girls do gain extra fat. That is the crucial time to be sure she understands what a healthy diet entails, that skipping meals and starvation are NOT healthy, and that she needs to accept that she is growing into a woman.

Not all successful teenage gymnasts need to have the body of a child. A gymnast CAN get through puberty and growth and still be a competitive, even elite level athlete.

Being FIT and HEALTHY is what will help your daughter reach her ultimate potential- not just being skinny.

Next week I will address the risks of eating disorders, the female/athlete triad and basic nutrition for athletes.

Let me know what you think at

Rita Wieber is author of “Gym Mom: The Twists and Turns of Your Daughter’s Gymnastics Career” and mother of four, including World Champion and Olympic gold medalist, Jordyn Wieber. Wieber is a registered nurse and has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and health education. Visit her website at