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Treating female bodies as smaller versions of male counterparts has caused problems for athletes for decades in terms of how to fuel properly (think dysmorphia, amenorrhea, RED-S, disordered eating, and more). Researchers across the country are working to close the gap on knowledge about how female athletes function, starting with actually including them in sports studies.
Nutritional intervention and education is most needed at the college-level.
For example, a study that looked at omega-3 intake among NCAA Division I athletes across the country found that only 6 percent of the respondents were getting the recommended daily allowance of the fatty acid. And only 39 percent met the recommendation for eating two or more servings of fish in a week.
“Most collegiate athletes consume insufficient dietary omega-3s, especially EPA and DHA, the specific omega-3s most associated with inflammation, recovery, and brain health,” says Michelle Rockwell, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Virginia Tech, who holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition.
But deficiencies in nutrition for college runners go beyond just omega-3s.
“This topic is particularly important for female college runners and athletes who are in a critical period of adolescent development,” says Dr. J. Sawalla Guseh, a cardiovascular physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “A broad body of evidence suggest that female college runners are particularly susceptible in the training environment to nutritional deficiencies that lead to a number of adverse consequences that include anemia, low bone mineral density, and a spectrum of concerns captured by the RED-S Syndrome.”
Findings from an analysis that Dr. Guseh co-authored on body mass index and aerobic fitness were recently presented at the American Heart Association’s virtual Basic Cardiovascular Science 2020 Scientific Sessions. When comparing the VO2 max and BMI of more than 800 women and 1,400 men, they found that, for women under 30, having either a low BMI or a high one came with poor aerobic fitness. And for that specific age group, women with the best aerobic fitness average a BMI of 23.2, which trends towards the higher side of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed healthy.
“We know that some athletes looking to improve their performance might first look to weight loss,” says Dr. Guseh. “[But] the relationship between weight and aerobic performance for younger female athletic women is not straightforward.”
A recent survey conducted by Illinois State University among Division I athletes found that the number of student-athletes that believe losing weight will increase their athletic performance is significant. The survey looked at many factors of student-athlete nutrition, but among questions about body composition, nearly a third of the respondents indicated a desire to lose weight to increase sports performance.
The main focus of that survey, however, was to look at where NCAA Division I athletes (including women’s track and field and women’s cross country) get their information about nutrition. Forty-one percent of respondents get dietary information from their strength and conditioning coach, followed by family and social media. Within those findings, lead researcher Kyle Brauman sees a solution to the under-fueling of student-athletes.
“Sports nutrition in itself is such a young profession,” says Brauman. He believes that registered dietitians could better utilize their time by educating coaches, rather than trying to reach all student athletes. “You might have a strength and conditioning staff of 10 to 20 people, versus 450 athletes. If strength and conditioning coaches see those athletes four to five times a week for conditioning or lifting or they’re at their practice, that’s so much more face time they can give those student athletes and communicate those things than registered dietitians can.”
Reaching female collegiate runners on social media is another way to get positive and informative nutrition information out. “It’s an incredibly useful form of communicating, both good information and bad information,” says Brauman. But navigating through that good and bad information will also take a little bit of education.
Brauman and his team have also studied the significant barriers that prevent student athletes from eating a balanced and nutritious diet (such as lack of time, access to unhealthy food, and the cost of health food). This research has yet to be released while it goes through the peer-review process, but Brauman hopes this will open up more avenues to intervene and that scientific and statistical findings can serve as backbone to helping young athletes properly fuel their bodies.