What information do female athletes have to support their performance and health? In a word: minimal. Females make up only one third of the subjects in exercise science research studies even though females are 50 percent of the participants in sports. When it comes to research on injury and performance—the real ‘meat’ of the basis of creating a winning strategy—females are only 2 percent and 3 percent of the subjects (Bethany Brookshire ScienceNews May 25, 2016). We don’t have data on how many female subjects are part of sports nutrition research studies. The numbers are undoubtedly growing, but until very recently, virtually all sports nutrition recommendations for women were based on data collected on men. Even now most recommendations still depend on male-centric data.
Why does this matter? Because women are not small men or men with hormone issues. Women and girls have unique anatomy and biology, and transferring sports nutrition and training recommendations based on males to females is equally as inappropriate and ineffective, and perhaps dangerous, as the application of male-centric pharmaceutical research results to females.
The void in female-centric sports nutrition research data has allowed the weight-loss industry to swoop in and masquerade as sports nutrition for women. This has led to a dominance of marketing images and emotionally driven information that emphasises a smaller, skinnier, and sexier physique, without any emphasis on sports performance. In a community that already suffers from a greater incidence of dysfunctional body image, these messages can profoundly influence the health and wellbeing of women and girls.
Within the halls of science and academia is the beginning of a call for change. Institutional Review Boards are beginning to highlight a requirement for female, as well as male, subjects in study designs. Journal editors and reviewers are starting to call foul when studies neglect to include females. While there are currently a handful of scientists focusing their research on the needs of the female athlete, most of these scientists are men. Their contributions are wonderful, and I applaud them for fostering lab environments where female students are being mentored to take their place among the community of full-fledged faculty members and primary investigators.
Just as in coaching, we need female scientists to be role models to enlarge the ranks of female investigators in the fields of sports science and nutrition. By nature, scientists typically study what they find to be personally interesting and therefore, female scientists will more likely have the desire and drive to study female athletes. The questions for study are wide open; you could choose almost any study ever conducted on males and repeat it with a design to test females. Indeed, there are many questions regarding the needs of women that have never been asked at all.
With more female-centric data, we have more female-centric recommendations and coaching, and more female-centric products and guidelines. Athletes want what works. Women and girls know that what is out there for them today hardly works, and in more than a few cases can actually hurt their health and performance.
It’s time for that to change.
Editor’s Note: Hear more from Dr Susan Kleiner at SupplySide West 2017, where she’ll be speaking on 'Formulating and Marketing to Athletes' on Thursday 28 Sept.