Prof Louise Burke, chair of sports nutrition at the Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, Australian Catholic University, provided a presentation entitled 'where are the females in sports nutrition research' as part of Vitafoods Europe on September 30th.
In the online presentation, she said the lack of female participants in scientific research is a worry.
"When we look across all sports science and sports medicine disciplines, only about 30% of participants in research in these areas are females," she said.
She pointed out a recent audit of five months worth of sports science and sports medicine studies looked at the number of males and females involved in the studies and found the area of research in which there is the greatest disparity is 'performance' - an area that Prof Burke has worked in for the last 30 years.
Looking at her own research output, Prof Burke realised that out of 300 papers published 68 had looked at nutritional interventions to enhance sports performance. Of those, she found that just 10 included female and male athletes, just two compared the two genders and only three involved females exclusively.
“It alarmed me to find that I was part of the problem, and what’s even worse to think about is for 30 of my 40 years I was head of sports nutrition at the Australian institute of sport so the reason for doing research was actually to win gold medals and, in Australia, females are very important to our sporting success.”
She explained it is not good enough to think nutrition guidance for men can simply be applied to women as there are a number of differences to consider, such as the actual event characteristics for men and women, differences in physiological size, but most importantly are the differences in hormonal changes, microbiomes and nutrient status - females more likely to be deficient in energy and iron, for example.
There are also a lot of differences in the ways males and females think about foods. For example, Prof Burke said females tend to be more likely to consume their recommended grams of protein if these are provided through tasty food sources, as opposed to guzzling them down via protein shakes.
She also pointed out that women far outweigh men in terms of those becoming involved in vegan or plant-based diets due to concerns around sustainability or animal cruelty.
Challenges in undertaking performance nutrition interventions in female athletes can include difficulties in recruitment and difficulties in finding matching cohorts for comparisons to male athletes. But she said the biggest challenge of all is the changing hormone levels caused by the menstrual cycle which make research more expensive and harder to schedule.
“We need to let our colleagues know that it’s now a really hot topic to do comparison studies between females and males and whether those differences change over the menstrual cycle. It’s now an area people want to read about.”
What’s in it for the food industry?
Explaining why food companies should care, Prof Burke said there’s a market there so there’s "dollars to be had" but she added that this does not mean brands should be "pinking and shrinking" their products.
She added: “I put the challenge out there to the food industry to tell them there is a good opportunity to make money and what we really need is good products which target female athletes...
“Females are more likely to be suspicious abut the food industry so what needs to be produced is something authentic that genuinely meets their special needs.”
She added that guidelines are needed on how to do research with female athletes and how to do research that allows the comparison of females and athletes.
“In short, we can do better.”