Nutrition plays a critical role in optimising athletic function. Due to the difference in physiology, this fact is especially true for women looking to be their best both physically and mentally. While the core principles of proper food intake still remain largely unchanged between the two genders, women should take note to focus on certain key areas to ensure that their nutrition does an adequate job of fuelling their performance.
- Get enough dietary fat
We all know that trans fats and processed fats can harm your body. Instead, building your fat intake around good fat such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fat will allow to maintain normal cell and hormone function. Good sources of this macronutrient include animal protein, seeds, nuts, wild fatty fish such as salmon, avocados and egg yolks. This is especially important as women tend to depend more on fat for energy during physical exertion.
- Drink up
Hydration is key in re-energising your body with sodium, electrolytes and water. Packing a homemade energy drink (skip the store-bought stuff!) that includes things like BCAAs, creatine and d-ribose will allow you keep your energy levels up even during the most gruelling of training sessions.
- Increase carbohydrate intake
As women, we burn less glycogen during exercise as compared to men. This is largely due to differences in hormone profile, so it’s very important not to take the same approach to carbohydrate intake as men. Excessively reducing intake will impair recovery in the female athlete but the same time, taking in too much can have adverse effects. Optimal dosage varies between women, so don’t be afraid to experiment to find out what works for you.
- Keep iron levels up
Iron supports your red blood cells in carrying oxygen to muscles around your body. Women benefit from a higher intake of iron as we tend to lose a significant amount of it via menstruation on a monthly basis. If you’re on a plant-based diet, try shooting for 18mg of iron on a daily basis due to the poor bioavailability of non-heme iron. If you eat meat, 11mg should be sufficient.
- Prioritise calcium
Certain women opt for procedures such as a hormonal implant or IUD to reduce the impact their monthlies have on their performance. While it can be handy, female athletes who do not menstruate should pay closer attention to their calcium intake, aiming for a daily intake of at least 1000mg split evenly throughout the day. A good choice of supplement comes in the form of calcium carbonate or citrate. Pairing those with a quality vitamin D and magnesium supplement can also help to improve nutrient uptake.
At the end of the day, women have a different set of nutrition requirements as compared to men. As most general guidelines are formulated with male athletes in mind, it is very important not to follow blindly when it comes to optimising nutrition for the sake of quick gains athletic performance or body composition. For greater clarity on the matter, consider consulting a dietitian or sports nutritionist who’s experienced with the needs of female athletes.