You’re Not a Small Man, But You May Need to Eat Like One!

fueling Jan 08, 2022

Research shows that female athletes have the same relative energy requirements as their male counterparts.

As anyone who’s been following me for more than 3 days knows, I’m all about women fueling properly, because the fact is that most active women do not eat enough to support their performance and recovery. Thanks to the diet industry, women have gotten the message they should always eat less, even when they’re moving more. We also get strong societal messages that we should eat less than men.

Well…new research would beg to differ (as would I!). Pound for pound, active women have the same energy requirements as men, and active women overwhelmingly miss that mark—especially when it comes to carbohydrate intake.

A study published last month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reports that when compared to a group of adult male professional soccer players, the relative daily energy requirements for professional female soccer players are the same as their male counterparts. What’s more, 88 percent of women in the study fell short of those requirements and had low energy availability.

The paper explains that male professional soccer players—who have been well studied (no surprise there)—typically burn about 3,500 calories a day, with a range of between 3,000 and 4,000 calories depending on whether they have a recovery day or a hard training day or competition. Experts recommend that they consume 3 to 8 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight per day, hitting the lower end on rest days and the higher end on heavy training and match days. From a total energy standpoint, the male athletes should be consuming between 40 to 60 calories per kilogram of fat-free mass (FFM), or lean body weight.

To determine the energy needs of professional female footballers, the researchers in this study analyzed the energy expenditure and input among 24 players during an international training camp that included two competitive games. On average the women burned about 2,700 calories a day, with a range of about 2,100 to 3,500. The researchers concluded that, just like their male counterparts, these athletes would need to consume 40 to 60 calories per kilogram of FFM to meet their energy needs.

As mentioned earlier, only 12 percent of the players hit those fueling goals. Their average carbohydrate intake was just 3.3 grams per kilogram. And only one player consumed at least 6 grams of carbs the day before the match. The consequences of this are low energy availability (which the researchers defined as eating <30 calories per kilogram of FFM) and suboptimal performance. In fact, research shows that the glycogen stores of 80% and 69% of type 1 and II muscle fibers from elite female players are empty or almost empty immediately post-match, showing they likely started with sub-optimal levels.

Though this study is on professional soccer players, it’s certainly not confined to this sport. It’s something I see every single day.

As women, we are making incredible progress in sport and we continue to push for parity. We owe it to ourselves to not hold ourselves back with low energy availability. For reference, we know the baseline calorie intake for women to meet energy needs is 40-45 calories per kg body weight; and in this here are the carbohydrate ranges I recommend based on exercise duration and/or intensity.

  • For a light or active recovery day, aim for 2.5 grams per kilogram.
  • For short intense days (like CrossFit training), aim for 2.5 to 3 grams of carbs per kilogram.
  • For moderate- to high-intensity training lasting 60 to 120 minutes, you need 3 to 3.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram.
  • For endurance training involving two to five hours of intense training per day (distance running, cycling, swimming), you need 4.5 to 6 grams of carbs per kilogram.
  • For extreme intense training of five hours or more per day (Ironman or multisport events), you need 6 to 7grams of carbs per kilogram.

A well-fueled female is a powerful female. Fuel yourself and optimize your power and performance starting today.

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