Special edition: Gender-specific nutrition

Protein bars are from Mars, fat burners are from Venus: Gender-specific sports nutrition

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Younger women are an increasingly important segment in sports nutrition even if NPD is lagging. © iStock
Younger women are an increasingly important segment in sports nutrition even if NPD is lagging. © iStock

Related tags: Sports nutrition, Nutrition

As sports nutrition makes gains in the mainstream, the emergence of the fitness-minded female is driving manufacturers to reconsider the typically male-dominated image of the sector.

Euromonitor puts the global sports nutrition market at a whopping €65 billion including the lifestyle end of the sector such as energy and sports drinks. 

When a more concentrated definition of the market is used that focuses on protein powders, bars and carbohydrate gels, the global market is estimated by Euromonitor at something closer to €10bn.

Young women - those between the ages of about 18-39 who often comprise about one third of many populations - are an increasingly important segment in these markets as their income, independence and desire for fitness and health increase (and their desire to have children decreases).

Tailor made?

Manufacturers are responding but for the moment there remain relatively few gender-specific sports nutrition products that cater to the unique nutritional needs uncovered by sports science research. New product development (NPD) is happening but hardly racing ahead of demand.

Speaking at the recent International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) conference in London, Dr Abbie Smith-Ryan, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel, presented a scientific approach to nutritional, supplemental and lifestyle considerations for women.

“It has been proven that heart disease for example is more prevalent in women,”​ she said. “If we know this then we can create a training and nutrition programme that can lower the rate of this disease in women.”

Dr Smith-Ryan went on to apply this idea of tailoring nutritional needs of women based on biological differences in fuel utilisation.

In general, women rely less on carbohydrates due to the influence of oestrogen. Women utilise more lipids which may be due to more body fat and/or intramuscular triglycerides, which are innate to the female.

Female athlete nutrition

weight woman sports muscle
The nutritional requirements for females provide an opportunity to create tailored products. (© iStock.com)

In professional athletes these differences would be further highlighted. A study​ looking into the nutritional aspects of female strength athletes, found a decrease in carbohydrate intake coupled with an emphasis on quality protein and fat consumption enhanced adaptations to training and general health.

In addition the study recommended attention to timing of nutrient ingestion and dietary supplementation as important components of a nutritionally adequate and effective strength training diet for women.

Dr Smith-Ryan referred to a study​ that compared dietary intakes and eating habits of female college athletes and compared them with the minimum sports nutrition standards.

The researchers found energy and carbohydrate intakes were below the minimum recommended amount, with only 9% of the participants meeting their energy needs.

75% of the participants failed to consume the minimum amount of carbohydrates required to support training.

“In general, we’re finding that women are under consuming calories, creating an energy deficit,” ​she explained. “This goes back to the idea that women equate fitness to losing weight by eating less. This is not true. We find females in general to be very fat-phobic.”

Optimized-HIT Fat Burner
Marketing sports nutrition products can often play on insecurities and stereotypes to sell products.

On the shelf

So female-specific opportunities to evolve brands and create product ranges abound - in sports and in general.

In the UK, nutraceutical company Vitabiotics have its ‘WellWoman’ range of multivitamins specifically designed to support areas of health which are of most relevance to women.

This includes vitamin B6 which contributes to the regulation of hormonal activity, plus iron which contributes to normal formation of red blood cells. Such links are backed by EU-approved health claims under the nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR).

Also in the UK is Bio Synergy ‘Active Woman.’ Launched in 2012, the product range includes a pre-workout supplement, post-workout recovery shake, concentrated sports drink and several weight loss supplements.

Its formulations cater to females with increased amounts of folic acid and calcium included. Packaging too has been well thought out, with muted colours and choice of font that does not shout a sporty theme or indicate the ingredients contained. 

At the other end of the scale, there are a number of examples that play on female insecurities and stereotypes in order to sell products. Smith-Ryan was able to provide examples from US-based HIT Supplements and their range of products that included a fat-burner and multivitamin supply.

Given the shift in Europe and the US to a lifestyle that promotes dietary supplementation, and the female-friendly image sports nutrition category is adopting, the female-centric niche is set to grow.

Excluding sports and energy drinks, Euromonitor predicts 9% CAGR annual growth to reach €11.8 billion by 2018.

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