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A collaborative study1 has taken place between two universities in New Zealand, seeking to explore the detrimental effect of ‘poor’ female athlete nutrition.

Researchers argued that more attention must be paid to the specific nutritional needs of female athletes, and highlighted that nutrition can affect everything from bone to reproductive health.

Dr Katherine Black of Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition holds the belief that most research into sport and nutrition focuses on male athletes, but the number of women participating in sport is growing, and female athletes have specific nutritional challenges and needs.

Dr Black and colleagues from the University of Waikato and High Performance Sport New Zealand carried out a literature review on the subject of low energy availability (LEA). LEA is when available energy in the body is too low for optimal physiological functioning, leading to altered hormonal profiles and eventually total loss of menstruation.

Along with having significant negative impacts on bone, endocrine, immunological, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, and psychological health, LEA also results in a long-term decrease in athletic performance.

Commenting on the study’s results, Dr Black said, “Female athletes often have energy intakes that do not match their high level of energy expenditure. Sometimes this is because they purposefully restrict their caloric intake for performance or aesthetic reasons, other times it can happen accidentally due to increased training loads, competitions, or lack of knowledge about how to best fuel for the demands of their sport or exercise.

“A further factor affecting energy intakes of females is that food consumption is influenced by hormonal factors, so there can be significant variations in appetite and energy intake across their menstrual cycles.”

Despite the severe negative health and performance consequences, Dr Black says awareness of LEA is low.

Louise Sutton, head of Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Leeds Beckett University and deputy chair of the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register said, “It is good to see the nutritional needs of female athletes receiving more specific attention. Meeting energy requirements is the primary nutritional need for all athletes, but female athletes, in particular, appear to have more challenges in achieving this. The impact of LEA on both health and performance can be significant. Alongside this research, it is good to see more high-profile athletes talking about the challenges in meeting their energy needs, and raising the profile of this important issue in maintaining athlete health and performance.”

Adding to the discussion was FitPro’s resident dietitian, Linia Patel, who specialises in women’s health and nutrition. She said, “Regardless of the sex or age of an athlete, adequate food and nutrients is so important. Food must be consumed in the right amounts and at the right times for health and performance to be optimal.

“What the science also shows is that active females and competitive female athletes have unique energy and nutrition issues compared to their male counterparts. The most common nutrition issues centre around getting adequate energy to meet the energy demands of sport, energy expended in daily living, and reproduction. Women need to choose the right foods to get the nutrients required to support high levels of physical activity, building and repair of bone and muscle, and overall health. If they don’t get this right due to their hormonal profile, the consequences can be detrimental, not only on performance, but on general health. This is why it is so important that female health gets taken more seriously in sport. Coaches, parents and athletes all need to be educated in this area as it has been overlooked for far too long.”

Patel concluded, “Another interesting observation in my own clinical practice is that poor energy availability was something that used to be observed in only elite athletes, but is now seen among the general public. There is such a big need to get the right messaging out there for women to fuel their bodies right.”