As more and more women are participating in sports at a high level, their unique nutritional needs as athletes are becoming increasingly important. Proper fueling is not only crucial for performance, but it also plays a significant role in overall health and well-being. This guide will outline the key factors that female athletes should consider when it comes to fueling their bodies for optimal performance.
Understanding Energy Balance
One of the most important aspects of fueling for female athletes is understanding and addressing the balance between energy expenditure and proper fueling for that expenditure. Energy availability is critical for many physiologic functions including the menstrual cycle, metabolism, bone and muscle health and overall hormone health, to name a few. Low energy availability (LEA) is prevalent across many different sports, however, impacts long endurance athletes, in particular. LEA can lead to long-term negative consequences such as stress fractures, hormonal imbalances, and decreased performance.
Energy availability is the amount of energy left over after exercise to support essential bodily functions such as metabolism and hormone regulation. Female athletes who do not consume enough calories to meet their energy needs may experience disruptions in their menstrual cycle and risk developing LEA and relative energy deficiency in sport or RED-S.
The menstrual cycle is an important “vital sign” reflecting female physiologic “balance” When the menstrual cycle changes, it often means that there has been a physiologic change and when lasting 3 months or more, should be evaluated by a health care professional. Disrupted menstrual cycles be a sign of inadequate fueling, thyroid dysfunction, excessive psychosocial stress along with other medical conditions. When menstrual dysfunction is prolonged, it can lead to bone loss, thyroid imbalance, and increased inflammation and risk of injuries such as stress fractures. Monitoring menstrual cycles can be very helpful to the female athlete for identifying potential physiologic issues before they start impacting other physiologic processes.
Bone health is an important consideration for women of all ages. For young women, building peak bone mass is one of the predominant factors impacting risk of osteoporosis and debilitating fractures later in life. In the later years, continuing to maintain bone density with sound nutrition, weight bearing and plyometric exercise also impacts risk of osteoporosis and fracture. Low energy availability and disrupted menstrual cycles for extended periods impairs bone-building during reproductive age and can accelerate decline in bone density leading to fractures later in life.
The Role of Macronutrients
To fuel appropriately, athletes should understand the role that macro and micronutrients play in meeting the needs of physical activity. A female athlete’s macronutrient needs vary widely with stage of hormonal life and type of physical activity. Contrary to much of the media “buzz”, there is no one-size-fits all. However a basic understanding of these important nutrients is the foundation and working with trainers and nutritionists to individualize the proper balance of these nutrients specific to your activity will help you achieve your optimal energy balance.
Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our bodies, making them especially important for athletes. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate found in the liver and muscle. High quality carbohydrate sources include whole grains, quinoa, sweet potatoes, fruits, and vegetables, provide sustained energy and essential nutrients. Refined sugars that are found commonly in processed foods should be minimized as these can cause inflammation and negatively affect insulin balance.
Protein is vital for muscle repair and growth, making it an essential macronutrient particularly for female athletes. Like carbohydrates, protein needs vary greatly depending on hormonal stage of life, training frequency and type of physical activity. As women enter midlife (beyond age 40), hormonal changes results in declines in muscle and bone mass, necessitating greater protein intake to mitigate this natural decline. Ideally, protein requirements are best met with lean sources such as poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, beans, lentils and lower fat dairy sources.
Fats are often demonized in the media, but they play a crucial role in our bodies and athletic performance. Healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, and nuts provide essential fatty acids that support the cell membranes of very cell in the human body, hormone production and overall health.
For females to perform in sport and tactical professions, it’s essential to understand the unique nutritional and training needs of female athletes. Maintaining energy balance and awareness of one’s menstrual cycle changes are two essential components for optimal performance and overall health. For more information on fueling for female athletes, consult with an expert in women’s performance endocrinology such as Dr. Carla DiGirolamo. Remember, proper fueling is not just about performance; it’s also about promoting long-term health and well-being. So, female athletes, let’s make sure we’re fueling our bodies for success on and off the field!