Smart nutrition for female athletes
Advice for each age group
As a sports dietitian, I feel compelled to "walk my talk," put my ego to the test and toe the starting line every now and again. There is nothing like competition for inspiration and to keep oneself humble.
As one of the over 50 gals, I feel fortunate to still be healthy enough to compete. Was it just plain luck or genetics that have allowed my body to tolerate 30 years and many hours of training? Perhaps. But I think there are many other older female athletes who would agree that the quality of their diet has played a huge role in allowing them to maintain a high level of fitness.
Here are a few thoughts on diet and training from female athletes of different ages. For each age group I follow up with an explanation and advice.
The 20-30 age group
Nutrient specific concerns: "When I was overtraining for my marathons, I was the thinnest of my life. (Not real thin compared to many, but thin for me.) I was about 122 and very lean. I remember thinking that if I got my period, I had too much body fat. How twisted is that? Something for your college girls to think about." - former Ironman triathlete, age 46, now unable to compete
The ying and yang of weight versus performance starts in pre-adolescence and pesters most women the rest of their lives. Training under a chronic calorie deficit in one's 20s is common but risky. It's a silent killer of bone strength. Although the peak years for laying down bone tissue is during adolescence, the window of opportunity for further growth is still open until age 30, when it shuts forevermore. At that point, bones have reached their maximum strength and density, known as peak bone mass.
The relationship between bone mass and calorie intake is hormonal. Without sufficient calories to maintain vital organs, the body starts conserving energy and stops "nonessential" activities. One of the hormones it considers nonessential is estrogen, causing levels to plummet and ultimately halting menstruation. While some athletes may consider this a sign of achieving an ideal racing weight, lack of estrogen halts bone tissue formation.
Nutrition wisdom for women in their 20s: Make the most of your bone mass when you have the opportunity. Key nutrients for this decade of your life include calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, iron, boron, copper, fluoride, vitamin C, vitamin K, zinc, phosphorus and manganese. Total calories and protein must be sufficiently high to support basic metabolic functions and the energy cost of exercise.
The 30-40 age group
Nutrition and time management: "My friend loved the fact she never got her period and was pencil thin but not anorexic or weak. She was 34 and an aerobics instructor. She was out mountain biking one day and crashed. Guess what? She broke her C4 vertebrae! Yes, she fractured her neck! She is lucky to be able to walk, and it took a while. She also has to manage her pain every day."
Our 30s can be a very time crunched and stressful. Many have young families or are considering pregnancy. Career building and changes in residence and relationships occur. Women who try to juggle it all often have accidents on their bikes, skates or in a car simply because they are always in a rush.
Changes in life roles from competitor to parent can lead to frustration and trigger emotional eating. Food soothes the frazzled nerves, and sharing fast food with the kids can lead to big increases in fat calories. While many women focus on cutting carbohydrates, reliance on restaurant food is more likely to add fat.
For example: A grilled chicken Caesar salad (220 calories, 6 grams fat) and 1 package Caesar dressing (190 cal, 18 g fat) adds up to 410 calories and 24 grams of fat. That is more than a quarter pounder (410 calories, 19 g fat). A handful of French fries (what the kids left behind) can add an extra 110 calories and 8 grams of fat. So intending to have "just a salad" at lunch can rack up 520 calories and 27 grams of fat.
Nutrition wisdom for women in the 30s: Food preparation is a skill that can be learned. Creating quick, healthy meals can be more efficient than going out to eat once you know how.
The 40-50 age group
Metabolic changes and nutrition challenges: "I used to run 10 miles a day for years then got injured and gained about 12 pounds. I can run again, but can't get this weight off no matter how many miles I do and I am getting obsessed about getting it off." - 45-year-old competitive runner
Most women notice a change in fat distribution around their abdomen around age 45 as estrogen levels decline. Not so much related to a decrease in metabolic rate, the mid-section bulge is caused primarily by a change in the areas where fat tends to accumulate.
Overall body fat gain, however, can be caused by changes in calorie requirements that are caused by a loss of muscle. This muscle mass decline typically occurs at a rate of about 1 percent per year after age 40. The challenge to maintain muscle mass for women is greater than for their male peers. Testosterone, which promotes increases in muscle, declines by 50 percent between the age of 20 and 50 in females - before menopause occurs.
While it is possible for older females to gain muscle, research has shown that protein - which includes the essential amino acid leucine, plus the stimulus of muscle contraction - must both be present within a close time frame in order for muscle growth to occur. That can be a big switch in routine for the runner who heads out the door in the morning on toast and coffee.
Weight gain can be related to other hormonal changes that occur in this decade of life. The mid-forties often mark the onset of sleep disturbances which increase the hormone grehlin, an appetite stimulus. Lack of quality sleep not only favors hormones that promote appetite, fatigue makes it more difficult to exercise. As a result, it becomes easy to eat more and move less.
Nutrition wisdom for women in their 40s: Do more strength training and use focused nutrient timing to maximize muscle building capacity. Choose a snack of protein with carbohydrates before exercise, such as low fat dairy, whey protein shake with fruit or a cup of Greek yogurt.
The 50 and over age group
Payback on nutrition investment: "I actually was happy about my cholesterol because it was at its lowest since I was 16. It was at 260 total, I believe, just two months earlier, and the only change I made was to cut out butter eggs and cheese and added Cheerios. My vitamin D is now fine (it was at 35 the first test) which I raised after taking 2,000 to 5,000 IUs daily and getting more sun exposure, and my iron is still low." - 47-year-old triathlete
Chronic disease affects athletes, too, even though the endorphin kick after a good workout makes you feel healthy and strong.
After age 50, breast cancer risk is roughly doubled, with the average age of diagnosis occurring at age 64. Heart disease, however, is still the leading cause of death in women over age 65. For the 50-plus female who wants to stay active, beating the odds of developing a chronic disease can be helped by monitoring one's cholesterol and vitamin D and by eating a good diet.
While experts agree there is a link between diet and breast cancer risk, currently the only clear associations involve the consumption of two or more alcoholic drinks a day and being obese after menopause. Reduction of heart disease risk requires maintaining a diet low in saturated fat (less than 7 percent the daily amount); low in trans-fat (partially hydrogenated fats, such as margarine or shortening); and high in fiber, whole grains, legumes (such as beans and peas), fruits, vegetables, fish, folate rich foods and no more than one alcoholic drink per day.
Nutrition wisdom for women 50 and over: This is a great age to get a baseline check on your heart health and bone density, get a mammogram and stock that refrigerator with a variety of wholesome, fresh food choices. Avoid the impulse to rely on supplements to provide what you really need.
Donna Marlor, MA, RD, CSSD, is a registered dietician specializing in nutrition for endurance exercise and weight management. She offers motivational coaching and behavioral skills training to change eating patterns. Marlor is a consultant to the Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan, and works with many individual athletes from novice to elite. A former collegiate alpine and Nordic skier, Marlor still enjoys master's level competition as a skier and runner as well as spending time with her family and chocolate Lab in the Upper Peninsula. She can be reached via www.DonnaMarlor.com and at 906/360-9049.