Study finds substantial nutrient insufficiency among female footballers

By Matt Chittock

- Last updated on GMT

© lighthouse films / Getty Images
© lighthouse films / Getty Images

Related tags Research women's health Sports nutrition

A new study from the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy investigated both adherence to the Mediterranean diet and the energy and nutrient intakes of semi-professional female footballers during the competitive season.

The researchers reported that most of the subjects studied adhered to the Mediterranean diet; however a “substantial percentage” risked insufficient nutrient intakes for vitamin D, iodine, potassium, vitamin E, iron and zinc.

"The results of this study help to clarify energy expenditure related to female soccer players’ playing positions and their adherence to [the Mediterranean diet], a dietary regimen widely discussed by sports nutritionists,” they noted.

Health and disease prevention

Today, women’s football is increasing in popularity, including in Italy where the number of female footballers registered with the Italian Football Federation doubled in the last five years​.

But research on female soccer players has not kept up, with existing studies evaluating nutrient intake and food consumption estimated from just one three-day dietary food record.

During a match, men’s energy expenditure is estimated to be between 1,200 and 1,500 kcal/day—for women, it is approximately 30% lower​. Energy demand differs according to a footballer's body weight/composition and playing position​.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet is one of the world’s most studied diets. Its positive health and disease prevention effects have been extensively investigated. A recent study with Spanish university students demonstrated that subjects with high Mediterranean diet adherence had the highest cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness levels​, while other studies question whether the diet is able to meet athletes’ protein needs.

Study details

For this cross-sectional observational study, the researchers evaluated 23 female soccer players from the first division of the Florentia San Gimignano soccer team between March and May 2021. Subjects filled out a three-day food diary twice, one month apart, to assess nutrient and energy intakes, with support from a nutritionist.

They used a validated MEDI-LITE questionnaire to evaluate players’ adherence to the Mediterranean diet as well as a GPS to monitor how much energy players used during three training and match days to highlight any differences due to the position athletes played (not including goalkeepers).

Findings indicated that the majority of players (74%) adhered to the Mediterranean diet. On average, participants consumed 1,981 kcal/day (44% of their energy came from carbohydrates, 21% from protein and 34% from fat). However, a substantial proportion of athletes were at risk of insufficient nutrient intakes for vitamin D (100%), iodine (87%), potassium (87%), vitamin E (39%), iron and zinc (17% and 30%, respectively).

The study suggested that a player’s position does not affect the distance covered and energy expenditure during training, but defenders showed higher intensity of physical activity than midfielders during the match.

"The evaluation of the dietary intake in female soccer players showed energy deficiency in relation to training level, mainly due to the insufficient intake of carbohydrates and micronutrient deficiencies," the researchers wrote. “Technical staff should promote adequate consumption of starchy foods in female athletes and emphasize the importance of a proper distribution of energy intake among different eating occasions, including snacks.”

They also suggested periodic monitoring of nutritional micronutrient (vitamin D and some minerals) could help reduce deficiency risk.

“Overall, nutrition education to improve eating habits of athletes seems worthy of attention to preserve athletes’ health and performance,” the study concluded.

Study limitations noted included the low number of semi-professional athletes localized in one team, possible inaccuracies with self-reported anthropometric measurements and food consumption and the lack of control of the menstrual cycle's influence on nutrient intake.

Journal: Frontiers in Nutrition
doi: 10.3389/fnut.2024.1378365/full
“Dietary intake and adherence to the Mediterranean diet in semi-professional female soccer players: a cross-sectional study.”
Authors: Alessandro. M., et al

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