Current studies suggest that female athletes’ diets are often not optimal for the types and amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and total energy intake. However, we found that most female athletes—other than those who participate in sports promoting leanness, such as dancing, swimming, and gymnastics—may be consuming adequate protein needs.
When the energy and nutrients from the foods consumed does not match the level of energy expenditure in the sport and nutrient needs for proper body function and growth, it can affect female athletes’ bone health and reproductive system. Deficiencies in vitamin D, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins can occur from exercise-related stress and inadequate dietary intakes.
Recent reports suggest that up to 42% of female athletes have insufficient vitamin D levels and up to 90% fall short of the adequate intake for calcium. These two deficiencies can increase the risk of bone stress fractures and also place these athletes at risk for osteoporosis later in life.
Diminished bone mineral density can increase the risk of fracture from repetitive stress on the bones during training and competition. The age that sport training begins is an important factor influencing bone mineral density. A study of teen and young adult female elite gymnasts found that the earlier the age of strenuous exercise, the more negative the effect on bone acquisition later on in life.
Female athletes with insufficient diets, who regularly miss menstruation or have a low body mass index should supplement their diet with the recommended 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day as well as other dietary supplements, including vitamin D for bone health and optimal calcium absorption. However, for safety reasons, all athletes should consult their physician and/or a registered dietitian nutritionist before taking any dietary supplements.
In addition, insufficient iron consumption may lead to iron deficiency anemia, which is more common in females participating in intense training, like distance running, due to the potential for additional loss of iron through urine, the rupture of red blood cells, and gastrointestinal bleeding.