Data finally starting to support proper fueling of female athletes, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
The data gap in sports nutrition between what works for men and for women is finally starting to narrow, said an expert in the field.

Dr. Susan Kleiner, PhD, is a sports nutritionist who has worked with a number of prominent female athletes and sports teams, including the Seattle Storm of the WNBA and the Seattle Reign of the NWSL.

Dearth of female-specific data

Among Kleiner’s clients is soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. The success of the US women in the recent soccer World Cup—and their quest for equal treatment with male athletes—points to another persistent gap, that being that there has been a dearth of female-specific data in sports nutrition.

One reason this has been true is that men are easier to study.  Not having to account and control for a woman’s monthly cycle means studies are more streamlined and therefore easier to conduct. And, in an area where research funding is always short, that means they’re cheaper, too.

Kleiner said this has led to situation in which it was merely assumed that whatever would work for a man would work for a woman.  Just cut the portions by a third.  While intuitively that might make some sense (we’re all humans after all), there was no real data to support it.

That’s finally starting to change, she said.

“The data sets are growing.  We are learning more about the needs of the female athlete.  We are speaking openly about the physiology of the female athlete, things like her monthly cycles,”​ Kleiner told NutraIngredients-USA.

“So with that comes more of an understanding of how to fuel her and put her hormones to work for her, rather than viewing it in negative light just because she is not a man. It allows the coach to allow that athlete to just be a woman,”​ she said.

Pressure to stay thin

Kleiner said that female athletes have been burdened not only with an incomplete appreciation of their physiology on the part of coaches, but they have pressures that male athletes mostly don’t have.  There is a constant, subtle pressure from sponsors for the athletes to be as ‘pretty’ as possible.  While male athletes are concerned about sponsorship dollars, too, they generally don’t have to concern themselves with their sex appeal to get them.

This is a root cause of what Kleiner believes is the bane of most female athlete’s existence, namely, a chronic underconsumption of calories. 

This can have something to do with a concern about power to weight ratios and so forth. True performance considerations, in other words.  But Kleiner said it usually has a lot more to do with what the athletes might look like in a photo shoot.

The data now available to coaches and trainers is helping finally to turn this tide, Kleiner said.

“This is most profoundly true in the area of energy, which has been the biggest sort of weight around the ankles of female so to speak.  They underfueled and believed that they still could be fine. Or they didn’t even understand that they were under-fueling,”​ she said.

“I have had top class, successful athletes who were under-fueling by 800 to 1,000 calories a day, unknowingly. And then there are those who are purposefully restricting, and I say that’s about half and half,”​ she said.

Kleiner said one of the things that data has shown is that contrary to initial assumptions, the body fuels the highest demand need first where there is a calorie deficit. It was thought at one time that the body would supply basic physiological needs first and then would fuel working muscles. If there was not enough left for your marathon, or soccer match, you’d just have a bad day. 

Under-fueling health

But now nutritionists know that those physiological needs will get delayed or won’t be adequately filled at all.  It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, she said. If you can’t outrun the tiger, the state of your bone health becomes a moot point.

“With the data we have now we actually start to put a number to that.  A female marathoner who’s under-fueling can still run fast marathon. But what happens is that she under-fuels her health. Ultimately these athletes start to fall apart, and they might have a short career as a result,” ​Kleiner said.

“And sometimes when I get an athlete who has been referred to me as suffering from overtraining syndrome, I find what’s really going on is that they are under-fueling,”​ she said.

Watershed moment

Kleiner said the performance of the women’s national team at the World Cup has been groundbreaking on several levels. Rapinoe, for example, is unabashedly gay, and therefore not particularly interested in appearing attractive to men in ads.

“I saw a book recently with the title ‘Bigger, Leaner, Faster.’  The version  aimed at women said ‘Thinner, Leaner, Faster.’ That really made my blood boil. What if a woman wanted to be bigger?”​ she said.

“So I think the performance of women’s team was a watershed moment on a number of levels.  They said they are not going to take it any more.  They are not going to feed into that marketing style,” ​Kleiner said.

Sports Nutrition event

Dr Kleiner will be one of the experts providing content at the upcoming Sports Nutrition Summit hosted by NutraIngredients-USA.  For more information about the event, which is scheduled for Feb. 3-5, 2020 in San Diego, click here​.

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