Why does protein matter for active women?Jan 06, 2021
Female Athletes - How are we different?
‘Women are not small men’ - Dr. Stacy Sims
'Women are not small men' - when I heard these words and the accompanying Ted Talk by Dr. Stacy Sims, my perspective on nutrition and training changed. Something clicked. It made sense why some weeks I felt awful and sluggish and couldn't seem to lift heavy, whereas others I was bouncing off the walls and getting in multiple sessions.
When I first started looking into female physiology in any great depth, I was drawn to the information put out by Dr. Stacy Sims and the menstrual tracking app FitrWoman. Through their content, my eyes opened to the physiological differences between men and women; in particular, the role that our hormones play throughout our cycle.
Now, my goal is to share that same eye-opening experience with other women and female athletes.
If you are a following my Instagram account, you know how much I talk about recovery. We need to recover properly to be able to adapt to our training and the stresses of every day life; that could be training for an iron man or working a stressful job while raising a small baba and trying to get 2-3 workouts in a week. Regardless of your level, you are an athlete and recovery is essential.
Recovery, and protein’s role in that recovery, becomes all the more important during the high-hormone phase of our cycle (just before we get our period) when we are more catabolic. This means that it is harder for us to recover from those tough sessions and life stresses. What we do outside of our training sessions is going to make all of the difference and nutrition is just one piece of that puzzle.
As you may have seen in my post yesterday, we are looking to be in a ‘Flow State’ for optimal health and performance; this is where we balance our ‘ramp up’ activities with our ‘ramp down’ activities. If we have too much ramp up activity going on then we are at risk of burning out and plateauing with our training, not to mention the negative health effects that come with it. It is essential that we balance our training with recovery and protein is a key nutritional element to our recovery.
WHY DOES PROTEIN MATTER FOR WOMEN? - GOAL SPECIFIC
WHAT IS IT?
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients (protein, fats, carbohydrates) that your body needs to get from food. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are considered the body’s ‘building blocks’ because they form the basis of many important molecules in our bodies (cells, hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.)
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Protein is essential for maintaining a strong immune system, recovery after exercise, increased athletic performance, as well as body composition. We need a supply of amino acids circulating in our blood so that our body can use them to repair and build our bodies, especially after exercising.
Here is brief overview of why protein is important for different goals that you may have:
1. GENERAL HEALTH:
As mentioned above, protein forms the building blocks of your body. An adequate amount of protein is needed just to fuel daily living, ensuring a strong immune system, adequate energy, and a healthy metabolism.
2. BODY COMPOSITION:
Protein is essential for building muscle as your body uses the protein that you eat to build and repair your muscles after resistance training. Increasing your body’s lean muscle mass will not only improve your body composition, it will also increase your resting metabolic rate. This means the more muscle you have the more calories you will burn simply by existing. Your body uses more calories to break down the protein that you eat than carbs or fats.
Protein is highly satiating, which means your body finds it satisfying and filling to eat. Protein is important to make sure you do not enter too much of a deficit when trying to lose body fat. Having Low Energy Availability (LEA - which is very common for women), can result in your body slowing down, holding on to weight, and increasing the stress hormone cortisol, which increases fat storage around the midline.
3. FUELLING SPORTS AND EXERCISE PERFORMANCE
Doing high intensity training or heavy resistance training sessions will put your body under stress. The amino acids in protein are essential for optimal recovery and performance. Eating enough protein to fuel your activity levels will make sure you avoid going into Low Energy Availability (LEA) or even Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), which is very common amongst female athletes and recreational exercisers.
45% of female recreational exercisers fall into the sub-clinical classification of low energy availability (Slater et al, 2016). Our bodies enter a catabolic state (muscle-break down) after exercise; ensuring that we refuel our bodies and muscles with protein after training is important to improve recovery and avoid RED-S. The timing of this post-exercise protein consumption is even more important for women than it is for men as Dr Stacy Sims states that our bodies "return to baseline" a lot quicker, whereas men have a longer ‘window’ to refuel.
Furthermore, Malowany et al. recently studied the protein needs of resistance-trained women and found that they were much higher than the current recommended intake of 0.8g per KG . They found that “an average protein intake of ~1.5 g per KG and ~1.9 g per KG would maximize whole-body protein synthesis and net protein balance in strength-trained females on a day of training.” (Malowany, 2019). In real-person language, this means that women who lift weights need more protein to maintain their muscle strength, size, and performance than previously recommended.
As I said, protein is the building block of our bodies, including that of your growing baby. Our protein needs increase during pregnancy to help build all of the maternal and foetal tissues. FIGO (The International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics) recommends an additional 10-25g of protein per day to the recommended pre-pregnancy amount of 60g in the second and third trimesters.
As well as increasing the satiety of meals and helping to keep you feeling fuller for longer, it also stabilises your blood sugars. Maintaining stable blood sugar and insulin levels during pregnancy is important if you are at risk of gestational diabetes. Furthermore, if you are training during your pregnancy then it is particularly important to make sure you are getting enough protein to support both your training and your growing baby.
NB - do not eat raw, undercooked, or cured meats, liver or high-mercury fish (swordfish, shark, marlin, and too much tuna) during your pregnancy. Limit oily fish to two servings a week.
All-in-all, protein is an essential macronutrient that plays an important role, regardless of your health and fitness goals. Recent studies have shown that women, especially those who are active, do not consume enough protein or calories to support their lean muscle mass, performance, and, most importantly, their health.
In my next blog, I’ll be discussing some practical tips and tricks when it comes to protein for female athletes.
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