Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Dietary Intake in Young Female Gymnasts: A Summary

Academic journal article Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

Dietary Intake in Young Female Gymnasts: A Summary

Article excerpt


Artistic gymnastics is a popular sport among young females, but, unfortunately, inadequate nutrient intakes are prevalent in these gymnasts. This article, based on summaries of 12 cross-sectional studies published between 1984 and 1998, examines nutrient inadequacies in diets of young female gymnasts and relates these inadequacies to health and performance issues. Family and consumer sciences professionals are encouraged to become involved with nutrition concerns of young athletes by providing nutrition education to groups of young athletes, parents, coaches, and judges; by monitoring growth of these athletes; and by referring athletes at risk to nutrition and health specialists.

Family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals are concerned with all aspects contributing to quality of life for individuals and families. Health issues are an important part of our agenda. A dimension of the health issue, nutrition and physical activity, is an area of concern. Routine physical activity and sensible dietary patterns work in concert to promote good health (Blair, 1995). Activity and dietary patterns learned early in life are often maintained as individuals age; thus, the early promotion of sound health habits is essential for prevention of chronic disease, morbidity, and mortality in later life (McGinnis, 1992).

Data indicate that today's children and adolescents are more sedentary and have higher body fat than young individuals of previous generations (McGinnis, 1992). Seemingly contradictory, however, more youths than ever before are engaging in organized sports of a highly competitive nature (Jennings & Steen, 1995). With this increase in participation in competitive sports, nutrition for young athletes is a new concern.

Artistic gymnastics is one of the most popular sports for young girls today. In any given year, approximately two million girls, aged 2 to 18 years, engage in gymnastics training (DiFiori, Puffer, Mandelbaum, & Mar, 1996). While participation in gymnastics is associated with positive health benefits such as low body fat and high lean mass, there are also negative aspects of the sport. These negative aspects include potential for dietary and nutritional inadequacies (Lindholm, Hagenfeldt, & Hagman, 1995) and stunted growth (Theintz, Howald, Weiss, & Sizonenko, 1993).

Female gymnasts are characterized by a high lean, low-fat body mass that results in a significantly lower percentage of body fat than in nongymnasts. For example, average body fat percentage of a group of child gymnasts, aged 7 to 9 years, was 15% compared with 24% for a group of same-aged nongymnasts or controls (Cassell, Benedict, & Specker, 1996). Such a lean body composition is conducive to the performance of artistic gymnastics maneuvers and is viewed as aesthetically appealing, particularly during performances, by some coaches, peers, and judges (Bale & Goodway, 1990; O'Connor, Lewis, & Boyd, 1996). Thus, gymnasts may restrict caloric intakes in an attempt to control or lose weight so that appearances are improved and performances enhanced (Harris & Greco, 1990; Rosen & Hough, 1988).

Consequently, diets of gymnasts may be nutritionally inadequate as micronutrient intake, or intake of vitamins and minerals, depends largely on macronutrient intake, or intake of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. The purpose of this article is to summarize studies of dietary intake in young female gymnasts. Dietary intake of gymnasts included in 12 cross-sectional studies published between 1984 and 1998 are examined. Health and performance implications are identified and recommendations for FCS professionals are made.


Although assessment methods of dietary intake varied among studies, several similarities were apparent in 12 cross-sectional studies of dietary intakes in child and adolescent female artistic gymnasts (see Table 1). …

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