Are Women More Susceptible to Certain Nutrient Deficiencies?

If you’re noticing slower times or more injuries lately, it may not be your training regimen that’s to blame.


BY ELIZABETH MILLARD |

  • Women who are athletes may be more susceptible to certain nutrient deficiencies (such as iron, calcium, and vitamin D) than men, according to new research.
  • This may be because female athletes are more likely to be restrictive with their eating, which can lead to greater risk for deficiencies.
  • If you’re not sure you’re on the right track, it can help to talk with a dietitian who specialises in sports performance. Or, when it comes to your diet, focus on getting more nutrients rather than fewer calories.

If you’re a woman and you’ve been struggling with more injuries or slower times lately, it may not be your training regimen that’s the problem. According to recent research in the Latin American Archives of Nutrition, you may want to give your meals and snacks a closer look.

Researchers reviewed 42 studies that assessed the effect of deficits on calories, protein, minerals, and vitamins on performance. They found that female athletes were much more susceptible to iron, calcium, and vitamin D deficiencies than their male counterparts. These athletes also need to be aware of a greater need for magnesium, folic acid, and vitamin B12, the researchers added.

They concluded that these common deficiencies may play a significant role in what’s been called Female Athlete Triad syndrome, which is comprised of osteoporosis, amenorrhea (an abnormal absence of menstruation), and low energy availability. The researchers noted that this combination is often derived from inadequate nutrition, but many physicians and even coaches may not be aware of that.

Female athletes are more likely to be restrictive with their eating, which can lead to greater risk for deficiencies, according to dietitian Kara Hoerr, R.D.N., who provides nutrition coaching for athletes. She told Runner’s World that athletes have increased caloric and nutrient needs, but women commonly cut back on calories right when they should be adding more instead.

This is increasingly seen with men as well, which is why Female Athlete Triad syndrome is now called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). RED-S is a more comprehensive and inclusive term that implies insufficient energy intake compared to the energy you need. (To get a RED-S diagnosis, you’ll need to get a blood test and bone scan)

Another concern is what female athletes are eating, Hoerr added.

“They may follow diets that are high in protein but neglect other essential foods, like grains, which provide the preferred energy source for muscles,” she said. “This leads to an imbalance of one food group that dominates over the others. If this continues, too much protein in your diet can result in dehydration, constipation, and even potential damage to organs.”

In terms of performance, deficiencies can lead to slower times, fatigue, and more injuries, Hoerr said.

“Getting faster and better at your sport often means making sure you have enough calories and nutrients to fuel yourself,” she said.

If you’re not sure you’re on the right track, it can help to talk with a dietitian who specialises in sports performance. Or, set a goal to get more nutrients rather than fewer calories in your diet.

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