By Lisa Hannam | Photo by Shutterstock.com/Stokkete
Getting stronger, faster, and generally fitter requires lots of time at the gym—but it also takes wholesome foods and nutritional strategies. Heïdi Boilard, Ottawa-based sports dietitian and Nutrition Month spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, says that she often sees female athletes compromise their activity level with their food choices. “March is Nutrition Month, and this year, we’re focusing on how healthy eating, diet, and recovery is about more than food. Considering not only what you eat, but how you eat is important, too.” For fit women and female athletes, these are the most common downfalls she sees when it comes to nutrition.
1. Not Eating Enough
Counting calories may be an effective way to maintain body weight, but for fit and athletic women, restricting food intake based on calorie counts can be too simple for your nutrient needs. In fact, it could hamper your fitness goals. Boilard says, “When female athletes or active women do not eat enough to support their activity level, this can trigger a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports syndrome.” RED-S not only decreases energy, but it can also negatively affect hormones and bone health, which could result in everything from missed periods to broken bones. There is no one-size-fits-all calorie count for fit women, as your caloric needs depend on a number of factors, such as type of exercise, training schedule, body composition, and fitness goals, reminds Boilard. “A female athlete training for an Ironman versus a weightlifting competition would have different energy needs,” she says. Getting a personalized diet plan is important.
2. Not Eating for Recovery
We know that food is fuel, but it’s also key for repair. “Recovery is one of the essential components of training adaptations, meaning, if you recover appropriately, you will be more likely to meet your body composition and fitness goals,” says Boilard, adding that the recovery period is up to 48 hours after training. “You want to ensure that post-training recovery follows the rule of the three Rs: Refuel with carbs, rebuild with protein, and rehydrate with fluids.”
3. Thinking More Protein Is Better
Yes, we just said that protein is important for recovery and rebuilding muscle. But don’t let protein replace other key nutrients, warns Boilard. It’s all about portions. “Female athletes benefit from a protein intake equivalent to a quarter of a plate at each meal, with snacks in between meals composed of a protein source combined with a carb and/or fat source.” “Remember: Protein is important for recovery, but so are carbs and healthy fats,” she adds. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes. Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts.
4. Swearing Off Carbs
“Carbs can be confusing,” admits Boilard. But this macronutrient is an essential nutrient for mental strength and performance. “Whether you are running a marathon, doing CrossFit, or hitting the gym, carbs should not be neglected.” Before and after a workout, game, or competition, Boilard says to ensure complex carbohydrates are part of your meals, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy. How much? “A simple rule of thumb is to fill a quarter of your plate with complex carbs on sedentary to low activity days, and fill half of your plate on days with multiple training sessions.”
5. Choosing the Wrong Supplements
Whole foods are the best ways to get your nutrients, but a supplement can help. “Whether you are a weekend warrior or an elite athlete, there is always a possibility of needing a supplement to correct a nutrient deficiency,” says Boilard. As said above, your nutrient needs are based on a complex cocktail of factors. “For example, female athletes, especially in endurance sports, are considered at a greater risk of compromised iron status because of menstruation and training regimen, which can also deplete iron stores.” That’s when she may recommend a physically active client take an iron supplement. To know exactly what your needs are, it’s best to consult a doctor or dietitian who specializes in athletic nutrition.