Eating for health

Female athletes have unique nutrition needs

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Kalais Kuhlmann grew up on a farm in Readlyn. For her, eating local isn’t a movement. It’s the way she was raised.

Continuing those healthy habits in college, however, can be challenging. Add the fact that Kuhlmann has to balance academics with athletics — the senior is a guard on the Coe College women’s basketball team — and nutrition takes on a different meaning.

“As I’ve progressed as an athlete, I’ve noticed different foods have different affects on my body and my performance,” Kuhlmann, 21, says.

Female athletes spend hours in practices and workouts, focused on what their bodies can do. However, this group often falls short in giving their muscles the right mix of nutrients from food and fluids.

“Females have different needs than men,” says Julie Gallagher, a registered dietitian with Cedar Rapids on Edgewood Road. “There are a lot more things to be concerned about.”

Gallagher would know. She played softball and basketball at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. She later coached at the high school and college level.

“The right mix of nutrients from food and fluids is essential for gains in strength, speed and peak performance,” Gallagher says. “I wish I had known this when I was in school.”

Improper nutrition can lead to disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis, three medical conditions that are becoming increasingly common among female athletes.

Disordered eating isn’t necessarily and eating disorder, but includes practices that could evolve into an eating disorder. This includes low-calorie diets, eliminating certain food group or excessive exercise. Avoiding key nutrients could lead to inadequate amounts of protein, iron, calcium and zinc in the diet.

Athletes who restrict eating in an effort to improve in their chosen sport are at a higher risk of amenorrhea, the absence of menstrual cycle. In turn, amenorrhea is linked to decreased estrogen levels, which may be the cause of osteoporosis.

A diet low in calcium and other bone-boosting nutrients can also contribute to low bone density.

“When I talk about vitamins and minerals, obviously I don’t have enough time to talk about all of them, so I’ll focus on the most important,” Gallagher says.

This includes Vitamin D, iron, calcium and zinc, which can be included in an athlete’s diet with minimal fuss if you know what to eat. Topping that list are calcium-based foods, such as cheese and yogurt.

“I’m a yogurt junkie,” says Angela Charsha-Harney, coordinator of personal training for the University of Iowa’s recreational services. “I try to eat light before a workout, often fruit and yogurt, and drink plenty of water. I often re-fuel with flavored water and more yogurt.”

An advocate for all physical activities, Charsha-Harney’s weekly routine is a combination of running, lifting weight, kettlebells, running through an agility ladder or step aerobics.

“I try to keep myself interested in working out by doing a little bit of everything,” she says.

She tries to exercise daily, but it can be a challenge. The mother of an infant and toddler has to juggle exercise with work and family life, too.

“I eat plenty of carbs to give me the energy I need, however, not being a competitive athlete, I have no pressure to have an ‘edge,’” Charsha-Harney says.

Kuhlmann does have that pressure, though, and she meets it by planning her meals around class, workouts and her body’s needs.

“The quantity and timing of what I eat varies, but not necessarily what I eat because I try to eat healthy,” she says. “I make sure the calories I get are good ones.”


"Nutrition Needs for the Female Athlete" will be held from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at the Cedar Rapids #7 Hy-Vee, 5050 Edgewood Road NE.

The program is free, but pre-registration is required. Stop by the customer service desk or call 378-0762 to register.


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