Fuelling the Lionesses: how research is changing nutrition practice and culture within the women’s game
Having already booked their place in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 quarter finals after a record breaking 8-0 win over Norway and 5-0 win against Northern Ireland, how have the Lionesses navigated their way to success?
One theory is that more sport and exercise science research, focused specifically on women and the professional female game, could be a key contributing factor in improved performance and players’ overall health.
Nutritional requirements of female footballers
Professor James Morton from the Research Institute of Sports and Exercise Sciences (RISES) has partnered with the Football Association and industry partner Science in Sport to better understand the nutritional requirements of female footballers.
Two recent studies have focused specifically on elite female players, ensuring that more evidence-based data is available to allow practitioners to make informed decisions about sport nutrition that will directly benefit the women they work with. Rather than, as has been the case previously, basing decisions on research that had a predominantly male focus.
Assessing energy expenditure
The first of the studies was led by Dr James Morehen, an alumnus from LJMU having completed his BSc, MSc and PhD with the RISES group. He was a performance nutritionist at the FA for four years having worked directly with the senior women’s England team for 18 months.
James and his team on the ground (Dr Chris Rosimus, performance chef Gareth Cole and Dr Marcus Hannon) used the doubly labelled water technique (a method for the assessment of energy expenditure) to directly assess the energy requirements of the Lionesses.
This research was the first of its kind internationally and now informs the nutritional strategies adopted by the players, fuelling them with the optimal amount and timing of foods during training and tournament match play. James’ research also suggests that female players often under-fuel in relation to the energy demands of training and competition, thus paving the way for player and stakeholder education programmes.
Nutrition culture and body image
In the second study, Sam McHaffie, PhD Student at LJMU, led on a separate project, seeking to better understand the nutrition culture within the professional women’s game. The objective was to discover how to better educate and influence behaviour change, in order to promote a positive performance nutrition culture.
The study used a qualitative approach to interview players, coaches, parents and sport medicine staff to better understand the challenges experienced by female football players when it comes to nutrition.
Sam identified that players may under-fuel, which in some incidences is due to external pressures associated with body image. Further research will now be focussed on assessing the energy requirements of female players as they progress through adolescence to adulthood, thus helping to instil a positive culture around fuelling.
It is hoped that this scheme of work will help to reduce the negative health impacts of under-fuelling, many of which are recognised under the Female Athlete Triad and Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport models.
Energy Expenditure of Female International Standard Soccer Players: A Doubly Labelled Water Investigation is published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Carbohydrate fear, skinfold targets and body image issues: A qualitative analysis of player and stakeholder perceptions of the nutrition culture within elite female soccer is published in Science and Medicine in Football.