Nutrition at the Ranch: Did Maroney Get It Right?

This time last year, we on the gymternet were still abuzz over McKayla Maroney’s interview with GymCastic, mostly because a theme seemed to appear over the course of the discussion: How can we do more to promote healthy attitudes in gymnastics?

When talking about the ranch, Maroney made the specific suggestion that USA Gymnastics hire a nutritionist. My immediate reaction was basically, “Oh…well, duh!” But of course, plenty of seemingly obvious courses of action actually end up being far from the wisest (just think about how we have to go through the whole “No, it’s not just the top X all-arounders at trials who are picked for the Olympic team” discussion every four years), so we need to look into just what impact this could really make.

So, is there legitimate reason to hire a nutritionist at the ranch? The research I’ve done would lead me to say yes, and here are the reasons why.

Nutrition

Let’s start with the obvious one. If nutrition isn’t a problem, why hire a nutritionist for the ranch, right? Well, the information we have from studies among athletes strongly suggests that the vast majority of athletes simply don’t get proper nutrition.

According to one study that analyzed the nutrition information of athletes who visited the nutrition booth at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 80% of those athletes did not meet daily requirements for at least one macronutrient in the 24 hours before their visit. These results are corroborated by the findings of a trial nutrition program in a NCAA volleyball team where not one participant met basic recommended energy intake before the nutrition program began.

But okay, let’s assume the gymnasts at the ranch are better than these athletes at meeting their basic nutrition needs. The ranch still provides a challenge for adequate energy intake. For athletes especially, nutrition isn’t static, as described in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine’s position statement. Daily energy requirements vary depending on the intensity and content of the day’s training session.

Even if the U.S. gymnasts are better than other athletes at meeting nutrition goals in everyday training, that doesn’t necessarily translate to when they’re at the ranch each month. We can only be confident gymnasts eat to match their needs at the ranch if a professional who knows how to fill those needs ensures they do.

Health Issues

In the post-Little Girls in Pretty Boxes era, I’m sure you can guess the first health issue I’m going to be talking about. Eating disorders. Does gymnastics deserve the stigma it carries regarding these diseases?

While the benefits of “the international look” seem to be more myth than reality, gymnastics still seems unable to escape the attitudes which lie behind the sentiment. Studies of Norwegian and German athletes have both found athletes in aesthetic sports to be more likely to develop an eating disorder than athletes in other classes of sports.

Now, I’m not going to suggest hiring a nutritionist at the ranch would end any and all problems U.S. gymnasts might have with eating disorders. But I will argue there are specific triggers at the ranch which might be alleviated if a nutritionist directed the gymnasts’ eating habits.

Let’s return to the GymCastic interview. In her discussion of eating at the Ranch, Maroney discussed how coaches’ presence at meals discourages the gymnasts from eating. While she only drew on personal experience, research data supports her anecdotal argument. One Canadian group sought to understand eating disorders within gymnastics by surveying gymnasts, coaches, parents, and judges. Their results found a correlation between gymnasts hearing negative comments about their bodies and gymnasts developing an eating disorder.

Maroney described comments about her weight in her personal recollections, and her understanding certainly seemed to be that this was common among gymnasts from other clubs as well. Combine this with the dining arrangements, and I would argue her recollections suggest the ranch presents a particularly risky environment for disordered eating behaviors to surface. If we put portion size in the hands of a nutritionist, we can hopefully combat this particular trigger.

Additionally, undereating can always contribute to the female athlete triad, a set of three interrelated health problems among female athletes: menstrual dysfunction, low bone mineral density, and insufficient energy intake, with or without an eating disorder. So regardless of whether undereating translates to an eating disorder, gymnasts can still experience the female athlete triad.

Now, we all know pretty much every large organization is more likely to make a change for its members’ well-being when that change would also result in increased performance. And when it comes to that, the female athlete triad hits USA Gymnastics where it hurts.

Why, you might ask?

Injuries

All components of the female athlete triad are associated with musculoskeletal injuries, with improper eating contributing to the injuries which take athletes out of training for the longest. Musculoskeletal injuries are currently a huge issue in gymnastics, and while the U.S. has largely escaped the ACL tear epidemic and the plague of Achilles ruptures is mostly confined to NCAA, the Americans still have their fair share to deal with.

2011 was of course one of the most notable injury years in recent memory with Rebecca Bross dislocating her kneecap at nationals, Mackenzie Caquatto getting injured on her beam dismount at the worlds selection camp, and Alicia Sacramone following that up by rupturing her Achilles during podium training in Tokyo. Maggie Nichols has been hit hard in the last few years, dislocating her kneecap like Bross and tearing her meniscus with less than two years between the injuries. The last two Olympic trials have also suffered casualties to musculoskeletal injuries with Bridget Sloan and Alyssa Baumann both injuring their elbows.

And that’s just some of the major ones.

So really, USA Gymnastics needs to put far more focus on addressing this need. With athletes’ documented inability to eat properly to fulfill their energy needs, logically USA Gymnastics should at least try hiring a nutritionist to combat the injury risk associated with insufficient nutrition.

Of course, the U.S. has enough depth that injuries don’t hinder its potential as much as they do, say, Russia’s. But ultimately, isn’t it preferable that the talent pool loses fewer gymnasts in the first place?

My logic for hiring a nutritionist at the ranch flows this way: The environment at the ranch presents particular obstacles to good nutrition. Athletes in general lack the skills to build a diet to support their activity, and this is compounded at the ranch because athletes can’t eat the same diet in every situation. The ranch also presents challenges beyond just a disruption in eating habits — the factors Maroney highlighted in her interview when she wanted to promote healthy attitudes also lead me to believe the ranch may exacerbate contributing factors to disordered eating. Both manifestations of nutritional deficit could contribute to gymnasts developing female athlete triad disorder, which then contributes to injuries. With such negative impacts from injury, USA Gymnastics should be taking initiative itself to address nutrition, if only from a business standpoint.

Hiring a nutritionist won’t be an immediate miraculous solution to everything. But I do think we have reason enough to believe this plan of action would bring definite benefits.

Article by Mary Flynn

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27 thoughts on “Nutrition at the Ranch: Did Maroney Get It Right?

  1. I’m kind of surprised that USAG doesn’t have a nutritionist, actually. Diet is so important for all high level athletes that I just assumed that all countries that could afford them would have some on hand for most sports.

    Liked by 2 people

    • They had one but like…it was Martha and Bela’s daughter? So like, obviously not necessarily an impartial figure acting in the best interest of the girls. I’m sure she was great and obviously she went to school for what she was doing, but I can’t imagine she was the one calling the shots. #MarthaWas

      Liked by 2 people

    • Gymcastic did an interview with ASac shortly after McKayla’s interview and they brought this topic up there. What they said there was that they’ve had some in the past, but it sounded like all of them were there and gone fairly quickly.

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  2. Great article and I thoroughly agree on all points. One question, possibly for Lauren – I thought the Karolyis had their daughter as a nutritionist at the ranch – is that long past, was that ever true, did I hallucinate that?

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    • Yes they did! I was just mentioning this in another comment. She was there but with her parents her bosses, she wasn’t necessarily the most impartial person to have on staff. They need someone unrelated to the coaching staff to step in and say “hey, this is what they need,” not someone who’s going to just agree with what the coaches say they need.

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        • Hahaha yes…like, absolutely that was not the best situation. I’m sure the daughter is a lovely person but yeah, I can’t imagine she was acting in the best interest of the gymnasts.

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  3. Good points. I would just clarify that I think it should be a registered dietician (RDN) they have on staff there. My friend is a dietician and explained to me that basically anyone can be a “nutritionist” – no specific schooling required. An RDN is accredited by the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and is required to pass an exam and then continue with education in order to stay accredited.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Actually, I modified this from a research paper I did for one of my classes, and in the full paper I did use the technical dietician language! For this purpose, I just stuck with the language from the interview.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I was going to say this. The term ‘nutritionist’ sounds official but as you say there is no regulation, and some ‘nutritionists’ are responsible for absolute nonsense l, and you might as well see a “toothiologist” instead of a dentist. Glad the original paper had the official term.

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  4. Remember when the TV broadcasts used to give gymnast’s height and weight? Just…why? I know a lot of people in the gymnastics community spoke out against Little Girls in Pretty Boxes when it first came out, but it seems to have helped. Gymnasts look a lot healthier and happier than they used to and the media (who play a big role in some of these problems IMO) don’t fetishize youth and tininess anywhere near as much as in the 80s and 90s.

    But clearly there are still issues. It’s just bizarre that they wouldn’t have a nutritionist on staff. Especially since the gymnasts are so young and it takes time and life experience – athlete or not – to learn what foods you should eat and how to prepare them. It doesn’t make sense to not provide them help.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Beyond bringing in a dietitian, they need to remove the coaches and staff from the athlete’s eating environment. They need to have a separate dining area (or time), and they should not be allowed to float or monitor the athletes during mealtime. If they are allowed to, no matter who is handing out the portions the food of athletes who feel their coaches or the training staff disapprove will tend to disappear.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a very interesting article. With respect to eating disorders, anorexia is more common among people with type A or “perfectionist” personality types. I think you would struggle to find an elite level gymnast who is not a perfectionist, so even before you factor in the issues specific to gymnastics, these girls are more “at risk” than the general population.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. All sports have nutrition advisors, that’s essencial for their health. In gymnastics the small and light have advantage. By the way might be one of the few ones that the short girls can reach the top, they are kicked out and are discrimated of the high level in almost all the other sports. In gymnastics the short feels empowered in a society where beeing short is not ” a good thing”. In basketball and voleyball they don’t allow the short even to be tested for the top high level teams, even if they are good, but to be honest they can’t compete in that level where everybody are good and tall, the tall have the natural advantage that puting short there would only result in lots of hard work for frustation!In gymnastics you see parents and coaches trying to drag girls that obviously will have more difficulties to the high level competition, and of course they will have more chance of injuries and there are people crazy enough to put these kids on a diet to lose weight. If they do it like other sports, they would not force kids that cannot make it to the top, then it will not be a problem at all.
    Nobody has to be extrem like old Russian coaches, but having a modern dietary coach as all the other top sports nowadays, that focuse in health and energy for performance! And let the short be the giant in the one of only sports that this is an advantage! For big girls that are so many other sports they can choose, isn’t it? At least when you talk about elite level. Everybody can do the sport for fun in a lowest level without having to worry with none of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would say even that having a #professional nutritionist in high level gymnastics teams are essential, also mental coaches. This would take off responsability of gym coaches to deal with something they lack of knowlege having consequences that can damage the kids and they can focuse in what they understand about: gymnastics training. Gosh, a nutritionist can be wonderful to teach him how to eat well, healthy and in a way that they can improve their perfomance and most of all, in a nice , friendly way.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Out of interest, what medical/support team does the national team have? I’d have thought it should include a minimum of several physios, an orthopaedic Dr, a general medic, a dietician and a sports psychologist. Its difficult to find this information thanks to certain recent sex abuse scandals.

    There seems to be be a huge visible variation of practice around the world. The case of the 16 year old national team Russian gymnast who required a hip replacement thanks to her severe hip osteoarthritis is absolutely horrifying and any medical professionals who allowed that situation to happen need to be struck off their respective registers. If you look at recent competitions, when Becky Downie fell in the European champs and tore her elbow ligament, she was immediately surrounded by medical professionals obviously assessing her injury, while in the London World Cup Liu Jinru limped round and competed on an obviously injured ankle without seeming to get an assessment or even an ibuprofen.

    The top dollar USA gymnastics programme doesn’t really have an excuse for skimping on the health (and safety) of their extraordinary athletes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here in Europe is normal that the top gym clubs have profissionals in nutricion, mental coaching and physiotherapists to support the girls weekly since they are 8 yers old. I am surprise that they don’t have that in US. It is so important!

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    • Mentioning the Nassar situation, it does seem like USAG is being more conscientious about the health of the athletes in the wake of it (I’m thinking especially of what Lauren mentioned in one of the most recent You Asked posts). Hopefully they will be more receptive to stuff like this from here out.

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  9. Nutrition is a big thing in Brasil. This week came in the news that along with performance, fat percentual will also be considered to enter in the brazilian team and I still haven’t decided if it’s good or bad. Daiane dos Santos used to have a 1200 calories diet and used to train 8h/day, that’s bizarre and unhealthy.

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    • Yeah…I remember when Daiane got banned, I think in 2009, for taking diuretics. Obviously what they were doing at that time was dangerous and I’d hate to see if the gymnasts end up resorting to those measures again.

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  10. Most athlets who move on to NCAA mention that they have discovered the benefits of good nutrition there. But at the same time, they also dramatically change shape (larger, havier looking) and physically they don’t look as fit as they were in elite. Do you think elite gymnasts eill now have the same shape a NCAA gymnasts?

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