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Gymnasts Sum Up Their Diet in One Word: 'Po-ta-toes'

April 29, 1988|PATRICK MOTT

Want to burn up as many calories as the average world-class female gymnast? All you have to do, says SCATS head coach Don Peters, is spend an afternoon shopping at the mall. The total exertion in terms of calories burned is about equal to a three-hour workout.

That is because gymnastics is not a long-duration aerobic sport like, say, distance running. It is anaerobic, which means it is performed in short bursts of high energy, followed by periods of rest.

As a result, a gymnast burns almost no fat, unlike the distance runner, and must eat a diet with as few fats as possible. The gymnast may eat four times a day--three meals and a snack--but it must be in the proper balance or dreaded extra pounds can easily creep in.

In a leaflet he distributes to his athletes titled "The Proper Diet for the Training Gymnast," Peters breaks down the diet into these percentages: 60% complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and grains such as breads, pasta and cereals), 20% low-fat protein sources (nonfat milk, seafood, skinless poultry and lean meats), and 20%--preferably less--fats (butter and margarine and animal fats).

These foods in the specified percentages, Peters says, not only are good for gymnasts but also for the weight-conscious non-athlete. He says the American Heart Assn. recommends a diet slightly lower in protein and higher in fat, but Peters thinks that the lower fat content of the gymnasts' diet is even more beneficial.

Ask Peters' five elite gymnasts what this diet means and they exchange amused, knowing looks.

"Po-ta-toes," Kristi Phillips pronounces slowly and emphatically.

Because complex carbohydrates are vital to a gymnast, Peters says that potatoes are naturally a staple item. But, he says, they must be baked, not fried. His gymnasts often eat them with low-calorie ranch dressing or low-fat cottage cheese.

Peters says a gymnast's daily breakfast might consist of a good dry cereal with skim milk, fresh fruit, toast and jam (rather than butter) and maybe a glass of juice. For lunch, perhaps a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread with low-calorie mayonnaise, and fruits. Just before the afternoon workout, a gymnast often has a light snack of some grain product, perhaps a bagel or bran muffin. After the workout comes the main meal, consisting of poultry or seafood, possibly a baked potato topped with low-calorie ranch dressing or cottage cheese, mixed vegetables and skim milk.

A few items that are universal no-nos on Peters' diet for gymnasts are candy, chocolate, potato chips, buttered popcorn, TV dinners, luncheon meat, frankfurters, whole milk, white bread, sugary cereals, ice cream, fatty cheeses.

It isn't a tyrannical diet, but the penalties for straying from it for long can be quickly felt, Peters says.

"I know it isn't fair, and the girls have told me they thought it wasn't fair, but when you're in competition the judges look at what kind of shape you're in physically. I tell the girls that nobody likes to see a fat lady in a leotard."

Also, he says, an extra 5 pounds can be a hard lesson in Newtonian physics. Those pounds may feel like nothing for most of the day, but when a girl takes them into the gym, swings them to the top of a revolution on the uneven parallel bars and then feels them drop from around 12 feet as she completes the lower half of the revolution, the 5 pounds suddenly multiply drastically.

But that is not the worst thing that can happen if a gymnast eats a few slices of contraband pizza.

"A few years ago," he said, "we ended up with an epidemic of eating disorders in the sport. It really got bad."

Bulimic behavior--the so-called binge-purge syndrome in which the sufferer eats large amounts of food and then induces vomiting to immediately get rid of it--crept into the sport around the early 1970s, Peters said, at about the time when Cathy Rigby was one of the most visible sufferers.

Although Rigby managed largely to keep her affliction secret during her gymnastics career, her eating disorder followed her into her private life. She has since conquered the affliction with the help of counseling and is widely known as a speaker on the subject of eating disorders.

Why did bulimia affect gymnasts so profoundly? It was, Peters said, simply seen as a means to an end by dedicated athletes who were always looking for something to give them an extra competitive edge--in this case, through pinpoint weight control.

"Here were these super goal-oriented kids busting their butts for hours a day," Peters said, "and they perceived purging as a way to achieve their goal."

Today, he said, eating disorders in gymnastics are disappearing as a result of awareness of their dangers by athletes and coaches. He points to Romania's Nadia Comaneci--whose weight fluctuated wildly toward the end of her career as a result of bulimia--as an example of an eating disorder destroying a meteoric gymnast.

"The whole answer was education," he said. "Once we could convince kids that purging was not only not helping their career but was actually wrecking it, they wouldn't do it. They're all overachiever personalities, real hard-working, work-ethic types of kids, and when they realized it wasn't a good method of keeping in shape, that was it."

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