It is hard to exaggerate the effect of Title IX on the participation of women in sports. Since the signing of the bill (Education Amendments of 1972), our numbers have increased more than tenfold across most sports. However, when it comes to the available information for female athletes to support their performance and health, it is in a word: minimal.
Females make up only one-third of the subjects in exercise science research studies even though females are 50 percent of the participants in sports. When it comes to research on injury and performance, the real “meat” of the basis of creating a winning strategy, females are only 2 percent and 3 percent of the research subjects (ScienceNews May 25, 2016). We don’t even have data on how many female subjects are part of sports nutrition research studies. The numbers are undoubtedly growing, but up until very recently, virtually all sports nutrition recommendations for women were based on data collected on men. Even now most recommendations still depend on male-centric data.
Why does this matter? Because women are not small men or men with hormone issues! Women and girls have unique anatomy and biology, and transferring sports nutrition and training recommendations based on males to females is equally as inappropriate and ineffective, and perhaps dangerous, as the application of male-centric pharmaceutical research results to females.
The void in female-centric sports nutrition research data has allowed the weight-loss industry to swoop in and masquerade as sports nutrition for women. This has led to a dominance of marketing images and emotionally driven information that emphasizes a smaller, skinnier and sexier physique, without any emphasis on sports performance. In a community that already suffers from a greater incidence of dysfunctional body image, these messages can profoundly influence the health and wellbeing of women and girls.
Within the halls of science and academia is the beginning of a call for change. Institutional Review Boards are beginning to highlight a requirement for female, as well as male, subjects in study designs. Journal editors and reviewers are starting to call foul when studies neglect to include females. While there are currently a handful of scientists focusing their research on the needs of the female athlete, most of these scientists are men. Their contributions are wonderful, and I applaud nearly all of them for fostering lab environments where female students are being mentored to take their place among the community of full-fledged faculty members and primary investigators.
We need more female scientists to be role models to enlarge the ranks of female investigators in the fields of sports science and nutrition. By nature, scientists typically study what they find to be personally interesting and, therefore, female scientists will more likely have the desire and drive to study female athletes.
With more female-centric data, we’ll have more female-centric recommendations, products and guidelines. Athletes want what works. Women and girls know that what is out there for them today hardly works and, in more than a few cases, can actually hurt their health and performance.
Female athletes want to be the most that they can be, not the least. Skinny and sexy are not athletic goals, and that messaging repels the athletic female consumer. They want to be stronger, faster, more powerful, all to support an outcome of winning. If accomplishing those goals leads to outcomes that also include being leaner and sexier, that’s okay. But those are not the primary athletic goals they are seeking.
As in science, we need women in decision-making roles in product ownership, research and development, manufacturing, marketing and sales, who have a personal interest in athletics and sport to create the change that women desire and the authentic products and stories that appeal to the female athlete consumer. The companies that pioneered the female athletic wear brands of Title Nine and Athleta, have demonstrated this to the big brands of Nike, Under Armour and Adidas by creating an enormously successful new market trend of not only female athletic wear, but the greater general public market category of female active wear.
The market opportunities are enormous for female-centric food and supplement companies funding female scientists to study the needs of the growing market of active and athletic women and girls. The companies that create evidence-based, pure products to support athletic performance with authentic campaigns will certainly create their own winning bottom line.
Sue Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., FACN, CNS, FISSN, is the founder and owner of the internationally recognized consulting firm, High Performance Nutrition®, LLC. She is also the author of the best-selling book Power Eating, as well as a consultant to professional athletes, teams, Olympians and athletes in countless sports. She is currently a consultant to the Seattle Storm. She is a co-founder and fellow of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), a fellow of the American College of Nutrition, a member of The American College of Sports Medicine and The National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Dr. Kleiner is on the Formulating for Athletes panel on Thursday, Sept. 28, at SupplySide West 2017. Learn how to target hardcore athletes using the best approaches to formulation, safety and communication.