Just 6% of sport science research focuses on female athletes

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Jacoblund
Getty | Jacoblund

Related tags: female athletes, Sports nutrition, Sports & Active Nutrition Summit Europe

With only 6% of sport science research concentrating specifically on women, the gaps in knowledge in this field are somewhat gapig, but interest in this area is picking up quickly and the discoveries so far offer huge potential for improving women’s performance through nutrition.

This is the message from Dr Sam Moss, senior lecturer in Sport & Exercise Sciences at Chester University and performance nutritionist at Gatorade Sports Science Institute, speaking to NutraIngredients ahead of her on-stage presentation at the Sports & Active Nutrition Summit next week.

Dr Moss will provide an overview of the research that has currently been conducted into female physiology, demonstrating the huge blind spots that need to be address.

“Research studies are more difficult in women and more expensive on account of their menstrual cycles creating more complexity. But we cannot continue to apply male results to females as they have completely unique physiological challenges.”

Key health concerns

A key health concern for female athletes is the dominance of RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) which essential means the athlete isn’t consuming enough energy to meet all their physiological demands. And this is startlingly prevalent.

In fact, Dr Moss says research indicates that 47% of female athletes are at risk of RED-S (Ackerman et al. 2019) and the health consequences of this are wide-ranging, from basic loss of energy and weakened immune function to impacts on bone density, resting metabolic rate and the menstrual cycle. And more health impacts are continuing to be discovered.

When Moss led a study into athletes in women’s football they discovered that just 23% of athletes had optimal energy availability to meet their general physiological and training needs. They found that the main reason for this was poor availability in their training environment.

“In men’s football you might have someone there making up their protein and carb shakes before and after training but those sorts of provisions are limited for women.

“There are also a lot of negative associations with carbs so there’s around education also.

“Many of the women have only just turned professional so have never had a nutritionist before and it’s really hard to break down internal beliefs they have held throughout their lives.”

The menstrual cycle

Of course a clear physical difference between males and females is the menstrual cycle which has a huge impact on women’s physiological needs.

Dr Moss says the research into the impacts is growing but there is still a huge amount not known.

For example, it is known that during the ‘late luteal phase’ of the cycle (the time between ovulation and menstruation) energy demand increases by up to 300 calories per day and during this phase the body can find it more difficult to extract stored carbs.

This has led some researchers to hypothesise that women need more carbs during this period, while others have concluded that they would be better off with protein as the body might be able to make better use of this. The fact is the research is sparse and, therefore, inconclusive.

Dr Moss will detail all of these issues in her presentation on day three of the Sports & Active Nutrition Summit which takes place in Amsterdam next week (Oct 5-7).

There is still time to get your space at the event. For more information and to register, please click HERE​.

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