When it comes to female athletes, they’re often just thought of as ‘little men’. But that is not the case at all. Female athletes have a unique physiology compared to their male counterparts and so have unique nutrition needs as a result. Knowing how to fuel as a female athlete is key to successful sports performance and health. But what should female youth athletes eat?
When thinking about what teenage female athletes should be eating, the first and often most important thing to consider is simply whether they are eating enough. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that female athletes don’t consume enough energy (eat enough food) to match the very high levels that their bodies use each day for normal growth and development and for regular sport on top .
Whether female athletes are intentionally reducing their energy intake for body composition or weight loss goals, or because they simply just don’t know how much they need to be eating, this can have terrible consequences to performance and health. Regularly under fuelling the body can lead to a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)  or to The Female Athlete Triad . Both syndromes put athletes at an increased risk of injury, illness and nutrient deficiency, as well as affecting the menstrual cycle which in turn causes poor bone health and an increased risk of fractures beaks and osteoporosis. None of which are ideal for a growing athlete.
If you’re a female athlete, it’s essential to track your menstrual cycle and if you notice any changes or miss any periods, you must speak to a doctor and a sports nutritionist to ensure you’re fuelling enough to stay healthy and get the most out of your career.
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy that the body uses during high intensity exercise. This means that a high carbohydrate diet is essential for female athletes so that they have the right kind of fuel to get the most out of their performance. But a lot of female athletes don’t eat enough carbs in their diet .
Carbohydrates tend to get a lot of bad press, especially in the health and fitness world. Lots of athletes believe they make you fat or you should eat a low-carbohydrate diet for better health. However, this is completely untrue for female youth athletes and they’re an absolutely crucial part of an athlete’s diet! Athletes should aim to eat a high carbohydrate meal pre and post training to help ensure they’re fuelled and can recover from their sessions. (Read more about carbohydrates here)
Protein is another misunderstood macronutrient. Because it’s the key nutrient involved in muscle growth, repair and strength, many young female athletes worry about eating protein in fear of it making them overly muscular or ‘big’. Again, this is not something to fear. increasing protein intake alone won’t suddenly give you big muscles and female athletes should be sure to include plenty in the diet. Aim to eat 20-30g of protein in each meal and 1-2 high protein snacks throughout the day too to keep the body in optimal condition . (Read more about protein here)
Female athletes are at a greater risk of iron deficiency and anaemia because of the increased iron losses with menstrual bleeding and vegetarian or vegan athletes are at an even greater risk too. This means they must consume higher amounts of iron in the diet than male athletes to prevent negative impacts to performance such as increased fatigue. Good sources of iron to include are red meats, dark green leafy veg, dried fruits, beans and fortified breakfast cereals.
The impact that periods have on athlete’s ability to train and perform well is becoming more and more researched, with more than two thirds of athletes in one study reporting a decrease in performance at certain times of the month . With symptoms ranging from heavy bleeding to mood disturbances and stomach cramps, it’s easy to see how performance may suffer at this time. But it’s not all bad and certainly isn’t something to be embarrassed about.
Good nutrition can play a role in reducing some of these symptoms and keeping training levels high. Anti-inflammatory foods such as oily fish, fruit and veg and nuts and seeds may be able to help reduce some of the symptoms of the cycle. Increasing these kinds of foods or adding in a fish oil supplement at the start of your period may help to reduce period pains and allow for more normal levels of training.
As well as this, regularly tracking of the menstrual cycle is encouraged for all female athletes as this will allow any patterns to be identified and training levels to be matched. When it comes to periods, remember to listen to your body!
So, when it comes to nutrition and athletic performance, it’s important to remember there’s not a one size fits all approach. Especially for female youth athletes. Female athletes have unique needs which need to be met so that they can fuel well, perform at their best and most importantly to stay healthy!
Manore, M., 2021. The Female Athlete: Energy and Nutrition Issues. [online] Gatorade Sports Science Institute. Available at: <https://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/the-female-athlete-energy-and-nutrition-issues> [Accessed 17 March 2021].
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Just as your youth athlete will need to fuel well to stay healthy, the same goes for parents too. Ensuring you eat a healthy and balanced diet will help to keep your energy levels high, so you’re better equipped to handle the stress and challenges that life throws at you.