Nutrition for the Female Athlete

The top athletes view food as fuel. They understand that nutrition has a direct influence on performance and recovery. Proper nutrition has helped the best athletes avoid burnout & repeated injury while athletes with poor nutritional habits experience decreased motivation, tiredness and irritation. In addition to these performance factors, nutrition also influences growth, immune response and concentration. Many of the nutritional requirements between male and female athletes are the same. These include:

  • Eating well-balanced meals with proper portions of each of the food groups
    • See the Canadian Food Guide
  • Choosing whole, unprocessed foods
  • Slightly increasing protein intake compared to non-athletes
    • 25-30% of total caloric intake or 1.2-1.7g of protein/kg of body weight
  • Fueling with carbohydrates before training and/or competition
    • 2 servings 2-4hrs prior to training/competition
  • Recovering with 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein immediately after training
    • Examples: Chocolate milk, peanut butter banana wrap, yogurt & fruit
  • Prioritizing hydration just as highly as training & competition
    • 2-3.7L/day. Continue to hydrate while training and increase consumption to 0.5L/kg of body weight lost post-session

The points listed above can help all athletes maximize their performance. However, there are also a handful differences between males and females; hormones, the menstrual cycle and generalized lifestyle habits. These result in slightly altered nutritional requirements between sexes.

Hormonal Effects

Females have lower levels of testosterone and higher levels of estrogen than males. This results in females having lower muscle mass and higher body fat percentages. Estrogen also decreases the body’s ability to burn energy after eating. These effects contribute to females requiring a lower caloric intake compared to males. It is recommended that females consume 1200-1500 kcal/day. This is a generalized range, the absolute caloric number differs slightly depending on age, training volume and training goals.

Micronutrients

Female specific hormones are also responsibly for the presence of the menstrual cycle in females. Blood loss that occurs during the menstrual cycle results in low iron levels. Additionally, athletes are known to lose iron through perspiration and the breakdown of iron in the tissue from running or pounding the feet. Therefore, it is highly recommended for female athletes to monitor their iron intake and ensure it is sufficient.

Iron is vital in the transportation of oxygen in the body.  Iron deficiencies can lead to fatigue, lack of concentration and difficulty breathing. It is recommended that females consume 18mg of iron daily. Vitamin C facilitates the absorption of iron while caffeine is known to block iron uptake.

The second micronutrient that should be monitored by female athletes is calcium. Athletes are known to lose calcium through perspiration. Calcium supports bone growth and helps to prevent bone fractures.  It also regulates blood pressure, aids in blood clotting and is required for muscle contractions. It is recommended that teenage female athletes consume 1300mg/day or 0.5-0.7g/lb of body weight. Vitamin D facilitates the absorption of calcium. Calcium also aids in preventing Female Athlete Triad. This is a syndrome associated with high activity and low body fat. Female athlete triad is characterized by disordered eating, absence/irregular menstrual cycle and osteoporosis. If you or anyone you know experiences these conditions, seek help from a medical professional.

Micronutrient Recommendation for Females Food Sources
Iron 18 mg/day Red mean, Shrimp, Tofu, Peanut Butter, Brown Rice, Dried Fruit, Poultry, Nuts/Seeds, Iron-Fortified Grain Products
Calcium 1300mg/day

or

0.5-0.7g/lb Body Weight

Dairy Products, Bok Choy, Sesame Seeds, Sardines, Kale, Collard Greens, Broccoli, Almonds
Vitamin D ≥ 200 IU/day Egg Yolks, Cheese, Fatty Fish, Vit D Fortified Foods

 

These recommended intake of the micronutrients can be achieved by a well balanced diet. Supplements are only recommended under the guidance of a physician.

Lifestyle Effects

Females are generally known for under fueling. This is caused by a combination of consuming too few calories and choosing foods with ‘empty’ calories. Any nutrient that is consumed in excess (whether carbohydrates, protein or fat), the body cannot readily use and therefore converts it into adipose tissue (fat cells). When it comes to nutrition, remember that the quality of the food is more important than quantity. By choosing whole, unprocessed foods you are likely to ingest the recommended servings of all macro & micronutrients. Tests administered by a physician are the only way to determine if you have a nutritional deficiency.  Remember to view food as fuel and listen to your body when it comes to making nutritious choices.

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