What's Missing from the Female Athlete's Diet, Part 1: Calories | STACK 4W

Become a Better Athlete. Sign Up for our FREE Newsletter.

What's Missing From the Female Athlete's Diet, Part 1: Calories

March 27, 2013 | Kate Knappenberger

Must See Nutrition Videos

Typically, when athletes lack results despite increasing their training intensity, we label it a performance plateau. This isn't always the case. Sometimes the problem is that something important is missing from their diet.

Serious female athletes have a reputation for being meticulous with their diets. But research has shown that this cautious approach is not necessarily a safeguard. Many female athletes lack essential nutrients, holding them back from reaching their full athletic potential. In this series, we will look at each of the most common missing nutrients.

In this first article, we'll discuss the fuel for our engines and the wood for our fires—calories. Without adequate calories, we cannot get where we want to go or do what we want to do. Yet female athletes often lack calories, for both unintentional and intentional reasons.

To achieve a specific body size or weight

When someone is calorie-deficient, body image is usually the first culprit. The common belief that a lighter athlete is a faster athlete is false, yet it affects runners, cyclists, swimmers, gymnasts, ski jumpers and lightweight rowers.

Weight loss can lead to performance gains only if someone has excess body fat. Normal or underweight females who restrict calories in attempts to lose weight increase their risk for injury, illness, and a host of nutrient deficiencies. They also often lose the muscle mass they need to perform at their best. Remember, muscle weighs more than fat, so a "heavier" athlete may be able to generate more power than a lighter athlete.

In severe cases, females can develop disordered eating behaviors and the female athlete triad. (See Are you at risk for an eating disorder?)

Many females fail to see accurate reflections of their bodies when they look in the mirror. You can't determine body fat just by looking. If you believe you have excess body fat, consider visiting a health care professional to analyze your body composition. If a health care professional determines that you can safely lose weight, go slow. Aim for about one pound per week to ensure that you do not lose muscle mass. If a health care professional determines that you do not have excess weight to lose, listen to their advice.

Not consuming enough calories to cover those burned during exercise

Unfortunately, some athletes unknowingly deprive themselves of needed calories. Hunger is not always a good indication that you need to eat. One research study revealed that when female runners increased their calorie burn by 20% during a 40-week marathon training program, they failed to eat significantly more food. (Ask the Experts: How Many Calories Should I Eat?)

Signs that you're not eating enough calories to support your training include:

  • Fatigue
  • Inability to finish workouts
  • Increased time needed to fully recover from workouts
  • Feeling irritable
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Weight loss

Athletes who inadvertently limit calories face the same health consequences as athletes who limit them on purpose. In order to avoid injury and illness, you need to stay in energy balance. This means you must eat as many calories as you burn. To do this right, you may need to see a sports dietitian to calculate your exact calorie needs, or you may need to pay closer attention to your hunger cues and energy levels during training. Don't be afraid to add a snack to your day if you are experiencing increased fatigue during your workout or throughout the day. Something simple like a peanut butter and banana sandwich, a bag of homemade trail mix, or a fruit and yogurt parfait can increase energy levels and lead to huge performance gains.

When it comes to performing at your best, the focus should not be on your bathroom scale. We know that restricting calories to lose weight does not always have a positive outcome. The ultimate goal is to win, right? Eating enough calories to completely fuel your toughest training sessions will allow you to train harder and compete harder—and keep you one step ahead of your competition.

Stay tuned for the next installment of "What's Missing from the Female Athlete's Diet?"


The Endurance Paradox: Bone Health for the Endurance Athlete, by Thomas Whipple and Robert Eckhardt.

Photo: nutritious-n-delicious.blogspot.com

Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Must See
Perfect Dwyane Wade's Signature Euro Step
Views: 1,307,628
Peyton Manning Dumbbell Bench With 80+ Pounds
Views: 35,108,928
Dashon Goldson: "You Just Gotta Have Heart"
Views: 3,744,827

Featured Videos

Abby Wambach Power and Stability Workout Views: 300,475
Path to the Pros 2015: Devin Smith Views: 55,686
Andre Ethier's Arm-Strengthening Superset Views: 647,833
Load More


STACK Fitness

Everything you need to be fitter than ever

STACK Conditioning

Sport-specific conditioning programs

Coaches and Trainers

Tips and advice for coaches and trainers


Latest issues of STACK Magazine


Women's sports workout, nutrition and lifestyle advice


Gaming, entertainment and tech news

Basic Training

Military-style training for athletes


Find the latest news relevant to athletes

Most Popular Videos

How Greg Nixon Gets More 'Twerk' on the Track
Views: 950,900
Patrick Willis' Homegrown Off-Season Workout
Views: 1,223,481
Derrick Rose Explains How He Stays Positive
Views: 5,298,334
Dwight Howard Stays in the Gym All Night
Views: 4,252,897
Two-Ball Dribbling Drill With John Wall
Views: 3,360,898

Load More
More Cool Stuff You'll Like

4 'Bad Foods' That Might be Good for You

As nutritionists, we learned in Nutrition 101 that unsaturated fats are the "good" fats whereas saturated fats are the "bad" ones. For years we were...

Where the Paleo Diet Falls Short

Are You Eating Too Much Protein?

5 Nutritional Power Combos for Athletes

10 Athlete-Approved, High-Protein Healthy Cereals

Living Near Fast Food Could Increase Your Odds of Obesity

5 Foods That Are Stunningly High in Sodium

The Grain Guide: How and Why to Use 8 Healthy Whole Grains

5 Healthy Foods That Got a Bad Rap

How to Eat Organic Without Breaking the Bank

5 Delicious Ways to Make Junk Food Less Junky

The 6 Worst Foods for Athletes

11 Food Services That Deliver Ready-Made Nutritious Meals

Load Up on These Foods at Your Backyard Barbecue

How Marc Gasol Got Better by Overhauling His Diet

You Should Eat the Peel of These 12 Fruits and Vegetables

Fuel Up Fast With 4 Smoothies From the New York Giants

The Healthiest (And Unhealthiest) Ways to Eat Chicken

The Case for Red Meat

Spice Up Your Healthy Cooking With These Lively Combos

12 Foods Every Athlete Should Eat

The Cheat Meal Day: Why It's Not So Smart

Why You Need Dietary Fiber

10 Easy Ways to Eat Real Food

Healthy Makeovers for 3 Classic Meals

5 Non-Boring Ways To Eat Chicken

How Undereating Can Make You Gain Weight

Terrible Toppings: The 5 Worst Things We Put on Food

The Boston Cannons'

The Best Foods for Digestive Health

Brown Rice vs. White Rice: Does It Really Matter?

Vegetarian Athlete Tips: Olympic Swimmer Kate Ziegler

5 'Good Foods' That Might Be Bad for You

5 Protein-Packed Recovery Shakes

A Sneaky Food Additive Athletes Should Avoid

Salad Showdown: Which Greens Are the Healthiest?

How Friends and Family Affect Your Food Choices

3 Fruits and 3 Vegetables Athletes Must Eat

STUDY: Eat More Fruits and Veggies, Live (Almost) Forever

Healthy (and Unhealthy) BBQ Ideas For Athletes

Small Change, Big Difference: 5 Foods You Should Buy Organic

Healthy Eating at Restaurants: Decoding a Diner Menu

6 Eating Mistakes That Undo Your Workouts

5 'Healthy' Side Dishes That Are Worse Than French Fries

6 Healthy Foods You're Overeating

7 Foods That Are Ruining Your Workouts

9 Athlete-Approved Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Why You Should Always Say No to Diet Foods

5 Ways Junk Food Can Mess With Your Head