Should Men and Women Eat Differently? (Not Really, But Know This.)

Should Men and Women Eat Differently? (Not Really, But Know This.)

There are many factors that impact an athlete’s optimal diet. But sports dietitians say biological sex doesn’t rank among the top characteristics they look at when making performance nutrition suggestions.

“Sports nutrition is not one-size-fits-all,” Angie Asche MS, RD, CSSD, says. "Far beyond gender, an athlete’s lifestyle, size, medical and diet history, genetics, and training cycle will all result in varying recommendations." 

Related: 5 Signs Your Nutrition Is Holding You Back From Peak Performance

That said, there are some finer points to be aware of as a highly-active male or female who wants to ensure you’re primed to perform. 

Should Men and Women Eat Differently?

Female Athletes Are More Likely to Have Certain Nutritional Deficiencies

“Compared to male athletes, female athletes tend to have higher inadequacy in vitamin B12, magnesium, and iron,” Asche says.

In addition to meat, sources of vitamin B12 include clams and nutritional yeast; You’ll get magnesium from legumes, nuts, and seeds; Iron is found in meat and seafood, plus plant-based foods like spinach and lentils.

Iron is particularly important for premenopausal women, who require 18 milligrams per day (compared to eight milligrams per day for men) due to monthly menstrual losses. To compound this, aerobic exercise creates an added demand for iron, according to Asche.

“If needs aren’t met and iron is depleted, ATP (energy) cannot be synthesized properly,” she says. "That could translate to early fatigue and diminished work capacity during workouts."

Related: These Are the 10 Foods That You Should ALWAYS Have in Your Kitchen

That doesn't mean you automatically need to stock up on supplements, though.

“We know just adding vitamin and mineral supplements doesn't help an athlete perform better,” Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, says. "In order for them to have a measurable performance benefit, they need to be correcting a deficiency, so get your blood levels checked by your doctor."

Male Athletes Should Double Check Their Calorie and Macro Needs

It’s not always the case, but men are generally larger than women and require more calories per day. If you’re a super-active male, you need even more fuel. In fact, many guys might not even realize just how much they require, leaving them with too big of a calorie deficit, according to Goodson. 

Should Men and Women Eat Differently

The International Olympic Committee coined a term for this: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). (Before this was established, a similar condition called The Female Athlete Triad neglected to include men or post-menopausal women.) The consequences include reduced testosterone levels, metabolic rate, and muscular growth, along with increased injury and depression risk.

Related: Should Men and Women Train Differently?

In particular, men should be aware of their dietary fat intake, which research has linked with a decrease in testosterone levels in men.

“During light to moderate intensities and long-duration exercise, fatty acids are a major fuel source for muscle contraction,” Asche explains. “Consume a variety of foods rich in healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, cold-water fish, and olives.” 

Hormonal Differences May Have an Unknown Impact

The caveat to all of this is that most research on nutrition and athletic performance is performed on male subjects. One of the reasons for this is concern that a female athlete’s menstrual cycle might skew the results.

“Nutrition research is constantly evolving, and I feel there’s still a lot to learn about the impact our hormonal differences have on nutritional needs for sport,” Asche says.  

Related: How Men and Women Unlock the Power of Hormones

But because we don’t have this information, Goodson says she prefers to use an individualized approach to sports nutrition that doesn’t weigh sex differences too heavily.

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