Specific Nutritional Needs for the Female Athlete, Part 2

Today I’ll finish up this 2 part blog, and touch on the importance of energy balance, the female athlete triad, a bit more on hormones and vitamins and minerals that we somethings overlook. For any men reading this blog, this part is especially important if you have loved ones who are female (spouses, children, etc), or coach female athletes. In addition, while you don’t have a menstrual cycle, the same negative effects can occur with you from a hormone perspective. I’ve worked with several semi elite male athletes who due to their over training and low-calorie intakes, had their hormone levels have drop so far that they have had to stop training. It can take months of rest and my help to assist them in rebuilding and recovery. So this information is for you as well. Let’s start with energy balance.

Energy Balance: aka, the amount of calories your body needs to maintain its healthy processes

Each of us, no matter male or female, need a set amount of calories to just maintain our body and its metobolic functions. The minimum amount needed is called our basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the rate where if we were to lay in bed all day, we’d need this much just to maintain our body. Then, on top of this, we add in our activities of daily living, and any additional exercise. This creates our total energy requirements, or total energy expenditure (TEE). If we consume more than this amount, we can gain weight, and if we consume less than this amount, we can lose weight. The key word is balance.

The best and most accurate way to calculate these numbers is in a scientific lab, using a calorimeter. Because this is so limited to the general public, there are calculations that you can use that will help you determine your ideal calorie amounts. Here are some scientifically recognized numbers to use for calculations on yourself.

Maintenance Calories: 15-16 calories per lb/30kcal per kg
Fat Loss: 12-13 calories per lb
Weight/muscle gain: 18-19 calories per lb

Let’s use myself as an example. I am 140lbs, and I’m in between fat loss and trying to maintain right now. Fat loss is hard when I’m not allowed to exercise a lot yet, and I’m certainly not trying to gain weight. So here is my range:

Fat Loss: 140x 13kcal=1820kcal

Maintenance: 140x15kcal=2100kcal

If I were to give myself a recommendation, it would be between 1800-2100kcal per day. In this range I will maintain, or lose slightly. And right now, that is around where I am shooting for.

What happens when you under eat, or under nourish your body for the amount you are training?

Your body will sense that it is not getting enough calories and will start to reduce the non imperative functions like the menstrual cycle/reproduction. Your body will recognize that it is in a negative energy balance and it will think this is a threat to your survival. This is also the case when an endurance athlete severely restricts food groups, fasts, skips meals, and their fat loss isn’t budging. Because the body believes it’s starving, you hold onto your fat stores, with you body believing it needs them for survival. Another topic for another day, but it’s a key I often find with athletes not losing fat-they aren’t eating enough, or enough carbs.

Where do hormones come in?

Too few calories, and not enough body fat, can wreak havoc on the body’s hormones. It can reduce the production of estrogen, increase cortisol (stress hormone that has a catabolic effect on muscle and bone) and reduce the amount of calcium that is absorbed (estrogen plays a role here as well). So right there you have the starting stages of the Female Athlete Triad. In addition, female athletes who have hormone imbalances can also have additional symptoms including: fatigue, hair loss, anemia, and slower injury healing. So even if you are an athlete, or coach an athlete that does not have the female athlete triad, you may have a disruption in your hormones, and need blood work to check hormone levels from a physician.

The Female Athlete Triad:

1.Disordered Eating-fasting, skipping meals, not taking in enough calories, restricting entire food groups

2. Amenorrhea-irregular or absent menstrual periods-while this seems like a benefit to some female athletes, it is dangerous and shouldn’t be treated lightly. If you lose or have an irregular period, this means your hormones (estrogen and progesterone) are out of balance, and most often, you need to consume more calories and add body fat.

3. Osteoporosis– low bone density or bone loss-because there is a link between our sex hormones (estrogen and progesterone) and bone health, women who under consume calories can lose bone density. Sometimes enough to put them into osteoporosis, which is generally an older women’s (think grandmother) medical issue. Often  you’ll see athletes with stress fractures, or a history of stress fractures.

As you can see all three are tied together. You can have just one of the triad, however they often go together, and it is a dangerous trio. The female athlete triad is most often found in endurance sports, or aesthetic sports like gymnastics, ballet, running, triathlon and rowing. The key is prevention. I believe it is very important for parents, coaches and peers to be on the look out for signs of any of the three. In addition, educating athletes about the dangers of the female athlete triad.

Vitamins and Minerals: All the vitamins and minerals are important, however these are the ones that I frequently see are missing from a female diet.

Iron: transfers oxygen in the blood to the muscle

  • Those at greatest risk are female endurance athletes (teens-50’s), those restricting calories and certain food groups and during menses –the pounding from running is thought to decrease iron stores
  • Iron Deficiency Anemia: Too few healthy red blood cells due to too little iron in the body
    Signs include: fatigue, decreased performance, weakness, shortness of breath, pale
  • Focus on iron rich foods-tuna, chicken, fortified foods and make sure you are eating them with Vit. C. This helps to absorb iron.
  • Need 18mg/day-if between 19-50 years old

Calcium: Important for bone health, preventing stress fractures, strains, building and repair or bone tissue and maintenance of blood calcium levels.

  • Dairy foods-milk, cheese, yogurt, leafy greens, fortified foods-although the calcium that is added to these, actually has poor absorption
  • Females 19 and over-1000mg a day

Vitamin D: Important for the absorption of calcium, regulation of serum calcium levels, bone health and immune function

  • Calcium and vitamin D go hand in hand. Sun exposure, and fortified foods are the best way. Some foods naturally have some vitamin D, although it’s very small. Taking a supplement is my recommendation.
  • Female adults can take up to 2000IU’s a day

B Vitamins: important because a lack of B vitamins can cause reduced athletic performance (optimum energy production). The B Vitamins are necessary to convert carbohydrates and protein into energy, and used in the production and repair of cells (including red blood cells).

  • Sources: meat, fish, eggs, green leafy veggies, nuts, fortified foods
  • Taking B vitamins will not give you energy, just facilitate the production
  • If you are a vegan, you must take a B-12 supplement, as it is not found in high enough doses in nature
  • There are 8 B vitamins-B1-Thiamin, B2-Riboflavin, B3-Niacin, B-5-Panothenic Acid, B6, B-7-Biotin, B-9-Folic Acid, B12
  • A general multivitamin, or complex B-vitamin can be beneficial

General Recommendations:

  1. Consume an appropriate amount of calories for your body
  2. Don’t diet, fast, skip meals or cut out entire food groups
  3. Reach out to a sports dietician or nutritionist if you need help with your nutrition
  4. Reach out to a coach, parent, doctor or friend if you feel you might be at risk for anything I’ve mentioned above
  5. Eat a well rounded diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein, dairy, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  6. Consider adding in a general multivitamin to your daily nutrition

If you’d like further help or have any questions, please contact me

 

 

 

 

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