Fueling the Female Athlete

July 27, 2021

With the Olympics upon us and the world watching elite athletes compete in various sports, what better time than now to talk about proper fueling for female athletes. Women in sports spend hours in practices and workouts focusing on what their body can do, but often fall short when it comes to giving their muscles enough fuel. The right mix of fuel from foods and fluids is essential for gains in strength, speed, and peak performance.  For the female endurance athlete, good nutrition is essential!

Fad diets don’t have what it takes for peak performance. Frequently, they are too low in calories and carbohydrate —the very components athletes need to compete. Fad diets can leave you feeling sluggish, irritable and unable to concentrate. Instead, be sure to eat a variety of foods balanced in nutrients for training and peak performance.

CARBOHYDRATES
Many athletes think of carbohydrates as “fattening” and therefore they cut down on intake of breads, cereals, and starchy vegetables. This results in: low glycogen, low energy, and poor performance. The female athlete who wants to perform at her peak must incorporate starchy foods into her daily diet so that she goes into an event with glycogen reserves. Starchy foods are not fattening themselves. Eating more than you need of any food is what puts on pounds. Remember, the female athlete who is training properly shouldn’t worry about extra weight from starchy foods.

Since low levels of muscle glycogen can cause fatigue, female endurance athletes should consume:

  • 60%-70% of calories from carbohydrate (6-9 g carbs/kg body weight)

Most female endurance athletes consume far less than this and should try to eat more nutrient-dense, carbohydrate-rich foods. Some good choices include:

  • Whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Fruit
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Grains
  • Beans

CALORIES

Thinking that “the less I weigh, the faster or better I will be” has caused some female athletes to greatly restrict their calorie intake. This is a BIG MISTAKE!  Some female athletes aren’t even eating enough to meet the recommended needs of a sedentary woman their age. Since a lower caloric intake is associated with poorer intake of vitamins, minerals, and protein, restricting intake may cause the athlete’s nutritional status to be compromised. In addition, energy levels will plummet and performance can suffer.

CALCIUM
For the female athlete, calcium is a crucial nutrient whose intake may be inadequate due to low caloric intake and poor food choices. Most of the calcium in your body builds and maintains bones and teeth. Calcium also helps your heart beat and your muscles contract and relax.  Low calcium intake can cause your bones to become weak and contribute to stress fractures and osteoporosis.  Female athletes should aim to consume at least 1300 mg of calcium daily, and amenorrheic athletes, who are especially susceptible to stress fractures, should consume 1,500 mg daily. If supplementation is necessary, calcium carbonate is the best bet.

Some good sources of calcium include yogurt, milk, cheese, orange juice fortified with calcium, almonds, seeds such as chia seeds, leafy greens, and even ice cream!

IRON
Iron is needed to help red blood cells carry oxygen to your working muscles. Female athletes typically don’t get enough iron in their diet. Physical training combined with menstrual blood loss and low dietary intake of iron can cause a gradual lowering of iron stores. This means that female endurance athletes often have an increased risk of anemia and impaired performance. Symptoms can include fatigue, irritability and reduced endurance.

To improve iron intake, female athletes should emphasize consumption of animal iron sources.  Iron from meats is absorbed better than the iron from vegetable sources in the body, but both are important. The consumption of animal and vegetable iron sources together (e.g., meat and bean burrito) increases the absorption of iron from the vegetables.  Because vitamin C also increases iron absorption, good sources of vitamin C (e.g., orange juice or strawberries) should be consumed with iron-rich foods.

Regular monitoring of iron status via blood tests and dietary iron intake is recommended. Female athletes who are anemic often require supplements, as it is difficult to overcome anemia through diet alone.

Warning: Since large doses of iron can be toxic, iron supplements should not be given routinely without medical supervision.

Keep your iron stores pumped up (18 mg each day) with these tips:

  • Meat, poultry and fish contain a form of iron that is better absorbed than the iron found in plants.
  • Iron in plant foods is better absorbed when eaten with meat, poultry, or fish. For example, to boost iron absorption from plant foods, try broccoli and chicken stir-fry.
  • Foods high in Vitamin C (oranges, tomatoes, potatoes) help the body absorb iron from plant foods. For example, drink orange juice with fortified cereal to help your body to absorb the iron in the cereal.
  • Be cautious: Dietary iron supplements should only be taken under medical supervision.

FOLIC ACID

Folic acid is a B vitamin that the body needs to make healthy new cells.  Every woman who could possibly get pregnant should consume 400 micrograms (400 mcg or 0.4 mg) of folic acid daily in a vitamin or in foods that have been enriched with folic acid.

There are two simple ways to be sure to get enough each day:

  • Take one vitamin with folic acid each day. Most multivitamins have the amount of folic acid women need each day. Women can also choose to take a small pill that has only folic acid in it each day. Both types of vitamins can be found at most local pharmacy, grocery, or discount stores.

OR

  • Eat a bowl of cereal that has 100% of the daily value (DV) of folic acid per serving every day. Total, Product 19, Cheerios Plus, Special K Plus, Life, and Smart Start are some examples. The label on the side of the box should say “100%” next to folic acid.

MUSCLE

Smart calories and a strength-training program will build a strong, lean body. Here’s the scoop on building muscle:

  • High protein diets don’t mean bigger muscles—this is a myth.
  • A strength-training program that challenges muscles is a MUST.
  • Extra calories are required to build muscle—eat meals and snacks during the day.
  • Eat foods that are carbohydrate rich (grains, fruits, veggies).
  • Include lean protein foods (chicken, lean meats, fish, beans and eggs).
  • Choose foods that are low in fat.

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