Proper nutrition is crucial for the health and performance of female athletes. They need to eat the right food to replenish their energy stores, prevent fatigue, and ensure they receive adequate nutrients. The specific nutritional needs of female athletes vary depending on factors like the sport they play, their age, and gender. However, in general, it is important for them to consume enough calories from a balanced diet.
But many female athletes do not meet their nutritional and energy requirements, which can lead to various health problems, poor performance, and low energy availability. For example, they may not consume enough calories to match the high energy expenditure of their sport, resulting in low energy availability. This can have negative effects on their bone health and reproductive function. Some athletes may purposely restrict their calorie intake for performance or aesthetic reasons such as losing weight for a competition, while others may unintentionally have low energy availability due to increased training or a lack of knowledge on proper fueling for their sport.
Let’s discuss few consequences that occur when female athletes do not consume enough energy through their diet.
Energy Requirements For Female Athletes
Research shows that many female athletes do not consume enough energy to match their high levels of physical activity. The energy needs of female athletes can vary depending on the sport they participate in, ranging from 2,500 to 5,000 calories per day. However, despite these high energy requirements, many female athletes intentionally restrict their calorie intake in order to lose body fat or achieve a certain body size, thinking it will enhance their performance.
When female athletes do not consume enough energy, it becomes challenging to obtain adequate nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and micronutrients, necessary for maintaining good health and performance. Particularly, when energy intake drops below 1,800 calories per day, it becomes difficult to meet nutrient requirements, especially when engaging in high-intensity exercise. Active females who exercise 6-10 hours per week typically need around 2,500 calories per day or more to maintain their body weight. Competitive female athletes who train for 10-20 hours per week or more may require over 3,000 calories per day.
If athletes consuming less than these amounts, they may be underreporting their energy intake, restricting calories for weight loss purposes, or at risk for disordered eating. Inadequate energy intake relative to exercise energy expenditure is referred to as “low energy availability” or “relative energy deficiency in sport” (RED-S). This condition occurs when there is an energy deficit between energy intake and total energy expenditure.
Warning Signs of RED-S
Here are several indicators that may suggest the presence of RED-S:
- Frequent fatigue fractures: If you find yourself experiencing fractures more often than usual, it could be a sign of RED-S.
- Quick onset of fatigue: Feeling tired and fatigued more quickly during workouts or daily activities can be an indicator.
- Increased susceptibility to injuries: If you’re getting injured frequently or experiencing a higher number of injuries than usual, it might be linked to RED-S.
- Greater vulnerability to infections: Falling sick more often or have a weakened immune system, it could be related to RED-S.
- Gastrointestinal issues: Frequent digestive problems like bloating, stomach pain, or irregular bowel movements might be linked to RED-S.
- Heightened irritability: If you notice an increase in irritability or mood swings, it could be a result of RED-S.
- Common muscular issues: Experiencing muscle weakness, cramps, or poor muscle recovery may be indicative of RED-S.
If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms, it is important to reconsider your energy intake and seek professional advice if necessary.
Optimal Level Of Energy In Female Athletes
Optimal energy availability is considered to be above 45 calories per kilogram of fat-free mass per day, while low energy availability is defined as below 30 calories per kilogram of fat-free mass per day. Accurately assessing energy availability can be challenging, as it requires precise measurement of energy intake, resting metabolic rate, and exercise energy expenditure. Underreporting of energy intake and estimation errors can lead to inaccurate assessment.
Additionally, the timing of measurements is crucial, as energy availability can vary throughout a competitive season. It is important to address low energy availability in female athletes, as it can have significant health consequences. Proper nutrition education, guidance from qualified professionals, and monitoring of energy intake are crucial to ensure female athletes meet their energy needs and maintain optimal health and performance.
Reasons Of Low Energy Availability In Female Athletes
Several reasons contribute to the development of low energy availability (LEA) in women. Here are the key points:
- Body Dissatisfaction and Desire for Body Composition Changes: Changes in dietary intake often stem from some form of body dissatisfaction and the desire to alter body composition. Individuals may feel dissatisfied with their bodies and seek to change them, which can influence their dietary choices and behaviors.
- Body Dissatisfaction in Elite Athletes and High-Performance Environments: Elite athletes or those in high-performance environments are at a higher risk of experiencing body dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction can impact an athlete’s dieting behavior and put them at risk for eating disorders (ED) and subsequently, LEA.
- LEA Can Occur with or Without an Eating Disorder: It’s important to note that LEA can arise both in individuals with eating disorders and those without. LEA may occur due to various factors, not solely related to an eating disorder.
- Restrictive Dieting and Social Pressure: Restrictive dieting, ED, and resulting LEA may stem not only from body dissatisfaction but also from beliefs that changing body composition will enhance performance or conforming to societal pressures to achieve a certain appearance.
Overall, factors contributing to LEA in women include body dissatisfaction, desires for body composition changes, the influence of high-performance environments, the interplay with eating disorders, and social pressures related to appearance and performance.
Energy And Nutrition Challenges In Female Athletes
Female athletes may encounter various energy and nutrition challenges. However, being aware of these issues and knowing how to monitor their health can make a significant difference. By discussing their diet and nutrition concerns with a qualified sports dietitian, female athletes can proactively address and rectify these problems. Seeking guidance from a professional can help prevent nutrition-related issues from arising in the first place, ensuring that female athletes maintain optimal health and performance.
Consequences Of Low Energy Availability
Insufficient energy intake can have severe implications on the body. In women, it can potentially lead to fertility problems due to hormonal disturbances caused by low energy availability. The reproductive system relies on adequate energy stores to function optimally, and when energy intake is insufficient, hormonal imbalances can occur, affecting the menstrual cycle and potentially leading to infertility.
Furthermore, chronic low energy availability can have a detrimental effect on bone health. Inadequate energy intake impairs the body’s ability to maintain proper bone mineral density, increasing the risk of decreased bone density and osteoporosis. Reduced bone mineral density weakens the bones and makes them more susceptible to fatigue fractures, which are fractures that occur due to repetitive stress or strain on weakened bones.
To safeguard reproductive health and prevent bone-related issues, it is crucial to address and prevent prolonged energy deficiency. Providing adequate energy intake through a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is essential for supporting the body’s reproductive system and maintaining optimal bone health. Regular monitoring and assessment of energy availability, along with professional guidance, can help identify and address energy deficiencies to mitigate potential long-term consequences.
Proper nutrition is essential for female athletes to maintain their health and performance. Unfortunately, many female athletes do not consume enough energy to meet their high activity levels, leading to low energy availability. This can have negative effects on bone health, reproductive function, and overall well-being. Recognizing the signs of low energy availability, such as frequent fatigue fractures and increased susceptibility to injuries, is important for early intervention.
It is crucial to provide adequate energy intake and seek professional guidance to ensure optimal health and performance. Remember, maintaining a balanced and nourishing diet is key to support the needs of female athletes and prevent potential complications associated with low energy availability.
Dinky, a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey, has been working as a writer for more than four years, covering a wide variety of themes including current affairs, politics, fashion, celebrity news, and fitness. Oh, and when Dinky isn’t blogging about her favorite television shows, you can find her marathoning the very same shows on her couch.