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‘Carbohydrate Fear’ in Women’s Football

Recent reports suggest that female footballers are not meeting carbohydrate recommendations. ‘Carbohydrate fear’ is a likely culprit.


Introduction

Despite the fact that carbohydrates are the best fuel for most forms of exercise, team-sport athletes—including footballers—tend to undereat them (1,2). Female athletes may be at particularly high risk for low-carbohydrate intakes: a recent study reported an average intake of 3.3 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/d) in adult female players (3). This is a far cry from sports nutrition recommendations (i.e., ~5–10 /kg/d) (4,5). Why are current dietary practices lagging behind the evidence—and particularly so for female footballers?


‘Carbohydrate Fear’

Despite over 100 years of evidence on the benefits of carbohydrates for exercise performance (6), myths about the negative impacts of carbohydrates on health and performance persist. In a recent paper, where researchers from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) interviewed female footballers about their dietary intakes, a theme of ‘carbohydrate fear’ emerged (7).


‘Sometimes I just don’t want to eat carbs because I know they will make me fat.’ – an anonymous player interviewed by LJMU researchers (7).


Needless to say, these fears are unfounded: multiple large-scale studies have reported similar reductions in weight for those eating weight loss diets either lower or higher in carbohydrates (8,9). In fact, at least in the very short-term, high-carbohydrate diets may lead to more body fat loss than low-carbohydrate diets when calories are reduced (10).


Sports Nutrition Pyramid.

Figure 1. The Sports Nutrition Pyramid offers a graphical depiction of the relative importance of a range of dietary factors with respect to exercise performance. Eating enough calories is most important. Then, ensuring you’re eating enough macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, protein, and fat) is vital.


Of course, it’s not the athletes’ fault for not knowing this, particularly when social pressures around body image are rampant. The researchers also reported a lack of knowledge in coaches. In fact, they reported that some coaches actively encourage players to lose weight (7). Let me be clear: this is unethical and dangerous advice, and far outside a coach’s scope of practice.


The Solution

There’s no easy solution to these issues. However, proper education is the logical first step to addressing a lack of knowledge in both players and coaches. This is particularly important for young (adolescent) players who, wouldn’t you know it, are also undereating carbohydrates (11). If you’re a player—male or female—it’s worth talking to your coaches about getting a nutrition professional involved with your club. Or, at the very least, to come in for a talk. If you’re a coach, be proactive and organise this.


In the absence of professional nutrition support, self-education is important. That’s why we’re here to provide you with health and nutrition advice that you can trust.


Summary

For optimal performance, It's imperative to fuel with enough carbohydrates. What’s more, eating enough carbohydrates will help you to maintain normal menstrual function and good health, which in turn will help you to avoid conditions such as the Female Athlete Triad (Figure 2). For more information on which foods are high in carbohydrates, and how much to eat, check out our previous article on this topic.


Female Athlete Triad.

Figure 2. The Female Athlete Triad


If you would like supplemental football training to improve your skills, reach out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected] to get started. And if you enjoyed this article, sign up to our mailing list to stay up to date.


Have a great weekend!


Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH

Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121


References

(1) Jenner SL, Buckley GL, Belski R, Devlin BL, Forsyth AK. Dietary Intakes of Professional and Semi-Professional Team Sport Athletes Do Not Meet Sport Nutrition Recommendations-A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1160. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6567121/


(2) Steffl M, Kinkorova I, Kokstejn J, Petr M. Macronutrient Intake in Soccer Players-A Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1305. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627126


(3) Krustrup P, Mohr M, Nybo L, et al. Muscle metabolism and impaired sprint performance in an elite women's football game. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2022;32 Suppl 1:27–38. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sms.13970


(4) Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501–28. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26920240/


(5) Collins J, Maughan RJ, Gleeson M, et al. UEFA expert group statement on nutrition in elite football. Current evidence to inform practical recommendations and guide future research. Br J Sports Med. 2021;55(8):416. Available at: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/55/8/416.long


(6) Hawley JA, Maughan RJ, Hargreaves M. Exercise Metabolism: Historical Perspective. Cell Metab. 2015;22(1):12–7. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550413115002831


(7) McHaffie SJ, Langan-Evans C, Morehen JC, et al. Carbohydrate fear, skinfold targets and body image issues: a qualitative analysis of player and stakeholder perceptions of the nutrition culture within elite female soccer. Sci Med Footb. 2022;6(5):675–85. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24733938.2022.2101143


(8) Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018;319(7):667–79. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2673150


(9) Höchsmann C, Yang S, Ordovás JM, et al. The Personalized Nutrition Study (POINTS): evaluation of a genetically informed weight loss approach, a Randomized Clinical Trial. Nat Commun. 2023;14(1):6321. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-41969-1


(10) Hall KD, Bemis T, Brychta R, et al. Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity. Cell Metab. 2015;22(3):427–36. Available at: https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131(15)00350-2


(11) McHaffie SJ, Langan-Evans C, Strauss JA. et al. Under-Fuelling for the Work Required? Assessment of Dietary Practices and Physical Loading of Adolescent Female Soccer Players during an Intensive International Training and Game Schedule. Nutrients. 2023;15:4508. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/15/21/4508


Technical Terms

Female Athlete Triad: A potentially serious condition which is the interplay of low energy availability, menstrual disturbance, and low bone mineral density. The Female Athlete Triad negatively impacts both health and performance, and should be avoided at all costs. See our previous article for more on this topic.

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