Any woman who actively or regularly trains ends up wondering if her diet meets her nutritional needs. Five of them are specific to women. Here they are.
More iron to prevent anaemia
It is possible for a woman to suffer from an iron deficiency if she has a pale complexion, feels very tired and dizzy or suffers from severe shortness of breath during exercise.
Anaemia is relatively common in sportswomen, especially because they lose iron during menstrual flow, but also when sweating or when small digestive haemorrhages are produced by the swaying of the intestines during exercise.
Women also tend to eat less meat than men, so their iron intake is more limited. It then becomes necessary to pay attention to iron sources to compensate for this deficiency.
Lean red meat, poultry, fish and legumes are good natural sources of iron. Dairy products should also be consumed at breakfast or as a snack and tannin-rich foods, such as coffee and black tea, should be limited as they may affect the absorption of iron from food.
To optimize this absorption, a source of vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, kiwi, peppers, cabbage, broccoli or tomatoes should also be added to your diet.
Vitamin D for strong bones
In addition to promoting calcium absorption and reducing the risk of fracture and osteoporosis, vitamin D helps to minimize the incidence of respiratory infections and, potentially, improve muscle strength by promoting muscle mass gain. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and synthesized by the skin exposed to UVB rays, hence its name “sun vitamin”.
Although exposure to sunlight remains the most readily available source of vitamin D, absorbing it from food and taking supplements from October to April would be necessary to meet the needs of the athlete. Indeed, studies suggest that one in three female athletes has a vitamin D deficiency.
This prevalence is not surprising, as not only do many sportswomen spend more time indoors and coat their skin with sunscreen outdoors, but there are very few good food sources of vitamin D. Some foods can still help with their intake, such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, trout, walleye, sardines, etc.), sun-dried mushrooms, and fortified foods such as milk, soy beverages and orange juice.
Essential fats for balanced hormones
Many women limit their fat intake by believing that it will affect their performance and make them fatten. Fats can prevent disruptions in the menstrual cycle by maintaining the balance of sex hormones. They also contribute to the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Although carbohydrates are the preferred energy source during intense exercise, women would benefit from consuming more fat, as they use more fat than men to save their glycogen stores during high energy demands.
Thus, the athlete should aim for a fat intake equivalent to at least 30% of her total caloric intake. A lower intake will cause rapid depletion of intramuscular triglycerides, which will affect performance in subsequent training. In addition, if the proportion of fat is less than 15% of total energy intake, there is a good chance that the amount of essential fat consumed will be insufficient.
The quality of the foods you choose is important to ensure a good intake of essential fats. Fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines…), nuts and seeds, avocados, olives and egg yolks are good sources of healthy fat.
Proteins to recover efficiently
Women are generally considered to need less protein than men because they have less muscle. However, since they degrade proteins less quickly than men after exercise, they need more protein to achieve the same result.
To ensure that the body does not use muscles as an energy source, the athlete should aim for about 40% of her total energy intake in the form of protein. By favouring small portions of 15 to 30 g of protein regularly, mainly before and after exercise, active women will promote their muscle growth.
Good sources of protein include fish and seafood, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy products, but also tofu, legumes, seitan, tempeh or green pea products.
Calories to rebuild to your full potential
For equal height, weight and age, women theoretically spend less energy than men, because their muscle mass is lower. Even if the athletic woman is more muscular than the sedentary one, the former too often limits her caloric intake.
Indeed, many women mistakenly believe that a slim body is essential for performance. The resulting deprivation is likely to lead to eating disorders, menstrual cycle dysfunction, risk of fractures and disappointing performance.
Women who are less motivated or focused on effort, but also those who feel tired, often have colds or have irregular periods, probably have insufficient caloric intake to meet their needs.
Several studies have shown that a daily intake of at least 30 kcal/kg of weight is required to maintain menstrual function, while a 40 kcal/kg intake, combined with calories expended during training, will promote recovery and performance.
A 60 kg woman will therefore need a minimum of 1,800 kcal, but will ideally need to consume more than 2,400 kcal to perform to her full potential. The athlete will be able to meet her nutritional needs by eating at least three balanced meals and several snacks during the day.
In short, sportswomen have special nutritional needs. They require more iron than men because they lose more iron, enough vitamin D to reduce the risk of fractures, essential fats to balance their hormones, a frequent intake of protein to promote muscle recovery and a sufficient caloric intake to perform. And, ultimately, the sports car’s optimized power supply may allow it to outperform its male counterpart!