The presence of women participating in competitive sports is steadily growing. Women in sport defy gender stereotypes and social norms, make inspiring role models, and show men and women as equals.
Some challenges female athletes face:
- Gender Equality: The media, for example, present sports as if there are masculine (e.g., football and ice hockey) and feminine (e.g., gymnastics and figure skating) sports which makes it more difficult to break traditional gender barriers.
- Sexism: Women are judged more for their aesthetics than for their potential and talent. Women with muscles are perceived to be “manly”.
- Body Image: In certain sports that are focussed more on aesthetics , there is lot of pressure to look a particular way. These include sports like gymnastics or figure skating that have subjective scoring. Females experience disordered eating more than males and have body image concerns.
- Hormones: During puberty and around the menstrual cycle, girls experience hormonal changes that can lead to weight gain, mood swings and increase risk of injuries. Older women and women returning to sport after pregnancy also have to deal with hormonal changes. Very low body fat levels can affect hormone production.
- Physical health:
Body image issues often lead to maladaptive eating, excessive exercise and substance use behaviors. In addition there could be anabolic steroid and supplement abuse, eg., diuretics, fat burners.
Chronic dieting by female athletes can lead to the female athlete triad (FAT), which consists of three interrelated health disorders: eating lesser calories, osteoporosis, and amenorrhea (absence of periods). This can lead to an increase in fractures and lifelong health consequences for adolescent girls.
Rapid weight loss (RWL) practice has been an essential part of many sports like wrestling, weightlifting, martial arts/boxing. An individualized and well-planned gradual and safe weight loss program under expert supervision is recommended.
The diet must be adequate in calories, protein, vitamins and minerals as per activity levels and health goals.
Carbohydrates: The amount depends on whether the athlete needs weight loss or gain. Healthy carbs are sourced from lentils, pulses, vegetables, nuts and dairy.
Protein: Around 1.2-1.5g/kg body weight per day is needed at the minimum. Eggs, dairy, meat, whey protein supplements can be used.
Fat: Healthy fats come from olive oil, rice bran oil, groundnut oil, nuts and seeds, avocado, fatty fish. At least 30% calories should come from fat. Low-fat diets are not recommended.
Benefits of substituting excess carbohydrates with protein and fat:
Female athletes, specially vegetarians are at increased risk for iron, calcium, vitamin B, and zinc deficiencies. These nutrients are vital for building bone and muscle and for energy production.
Iron deficiency is most common because of menstrual losses. Supplements must be taken after checking blood levels.
Calcium intake must be in the range of 1000-1500 mg/day with adequate vitamin D. A mix of dairy products an supplements can supply these amounts.
Sports nutrition supplements are needed for performance and must be taken under guidance.
Adequate fluid intake is approximately 2.2 L/d for women aged 19-30 years, and increased drinking is required for active individuals or those in hot environments. The urine colour should be a pale yellow. When excessive sweating occurs, salts like sodium, potassium and magnesium must also be added.
2. Mental health:
Disordered eating behaviors specifically in athletes have been termed anorexia athletica. It can be difficult to detect as athletes naturally maintain strict diets and follow intense training schedules.
They can lead to social, occupational and relationship issues.
A sport psychologist can help female athletes deal with performance pressures in a healthy manner. When the issue gets more serious, a clinical psychologist may also be required. Parents, coaches and team mates should watch out for extreme behaviours and tackle it in time.
~Shweta Bhatia, Registered Dietitian and Founder, Mind Your Fitness!