Estimating Energy Requirements Of Female Athletes & Why Men Are Shit At It

The following was a suggestion made in a discussion on a certain forum the other day:
"A lot of men do not understand how many calories women need because men in the fitness industry can obviously eat a lot more and be fine."
The context of course was more like "how few calories" rather than "how many".

A Short List Of Links And References.

Further reading for after you've finished this article, but I wanted to include them early on to illustrate why this is a matter of serious concern.

Here's the thing. 
A fit & active male, and especially one carrying a lot of extra muscle mass, will have massive calorie requirements. A younger &/or a taller one would have higher requirements than an older & shorter one, but level of activity and amount of lean mass are by far the greater influences on calorie requirements. And note that I am saying "requirements" as in "they actually require that amount to maintain performance and condition" rather than just "they can get away with it because they're male."
Regardless, it seems to be extremely rare that any males are thinking "well if I can eat 3600 calories a day then so can she" and issuing excessive targets, or anything remotely similar. Rather, quite the opposite is what occurs, with males in particular failing to understand and dangerously underestimating the energy / calorie requirements of females they are advising whether in a professional capacity, a mansplaining capacity, or even just an enabling "no that sounds fine" capacity when a woman is asking for advice about why she's not seeing progress on 1200 calories per day and I'm trying explain that she probably needs about 700 a day more at an absolute minimum.

So what we're talking about here is an observation of a tendency and next will be some speculation on why that might be happening. But also we can probably expect some indignant males in the comments section complaining with strawman arguments like "so you're saying NO men can ever give competent nutritional advice, that's sexist"... to which I point out that not only am I actually a man myself, but... and I mean, I don't who's going to show up, but I put it to you that I'm actually twice the man that any of them are.

With the right equations and some intuition we can accurately predict a person's energy requirements, based on an array of factors. Sex, height & age come into this but perhaps the most significant factors are the amount of lean mass we want to support, and Level Of Activity.

As elaborated upon recently, Level Of Activity refers to all of the following:
  • Amount of time spent active.
  • Frequency and consistency of attendance and participation in training.
  • Quality and efficacy of training strategy.
  • Intensity of effort.
  • Proficiency and prowess at training.
  • Activity levels outside of training.
Emphasis here is on proficiency and prowess at training, and the importance of taking this into account. The amount a more experienced, more advanced athlete requires bares little resemblance to an amount that would be adequate or necessary for a beginner. However, even at a beginner level we should be aiming to facilitate improvements in performance and increases in lean mass. 

When attempting to understand the very low calorie levels I often see males recommend or endorse, I can only imagine that they have entirely failed to take Level Of Activity and Support Of Lean Mass into account, and have based their estimates upon the requirements of a sedentary person. Either that or they've simply looked at the product of their equations, and instinctively thought "but she's a girl" and "but she's trying to lose fat" and thrown the lot out in favour of some arbitrary amount that feels right.

In other words, they don't quite have the balls to stick their neck out and instruct a female to eat that much food and consume that amount of calories. They may claim to coach IIFYM or Flexible Dieting but in the end, the client may as well have just joined a mainstream, commercial calorie restriction weight loss program with one size fits all calorie restrictions... as they are in no way working to an amount that actually reflects their individual requirements.

Here's why though. Or here's a pretty good guess at least.

My observation is that a lot of these males follow a "bulk & cut" body building styled approach, in which you have "calorie surplus to gain weight" and "calorie deficit to lose weight" periods. In theory and when done successfully, the weight gained includes muscle tissue and other lean mass, and the weight loss period takes care of any body fat gained in the process. Perhaps just as likely though is that after the end of a bulking and cutting cycle, you find yourself back at exactly the same weight and same (or worse) condition than you started with.

Now... obviously you can't make blanket statements like this as if they apply across the board, but it appears to me that in a lot of cases, (a) these males in question do not understand anything other than "bulk and then cut", but since (b) a female is always assumed to be in "cutting" mode with fat loss as the primary if not only focus... you end up with calorie restrictions based on wanting to be as far into calorific deficit as possible, and the least amount the individual can manage to subsist upon.

This is... pretty bad. Really quite bad indeed.

Male or female, as a serious athlete competing in sport your priority is performance, and when fueled for performance athletic condition will occur as a side effect or by product. As a serious but non competitive enthusiast, or even as a beginner, here's a short list of things you should be interested in:
  • Improved performance at training & sports.
  • Maintain and increase lean mass, in terms of;
    • Muscle tissue.
    • Bone density.
    • Energy stored within the muscle cells.
  • Variety of, enjoyment of, & positive relationship with food.
  • Physical & mental health.
  • Enjoyment of life outside of training.
Fat loss is likely to also be an aspect of your goal, but the idea should be to pursue all of the above at the expense of fat stores, rather than "fat loss to the detriment of everything else."

You would think it would stand to reason that when athletic performance and condition is the goal, you will require more energy and resources to draw upon than an amount that would sustain an invalid, or an amount that might be necessary to restrict to in order to force fat loss in a sedentary person. You would think so, and while you'd be correct, my observation is that you'd also be in the minority.

Bottom line: You must take Level Of Activity into account when estimating energy requirements for athletes, and bare in mind that your aim is to facilitate improvements in performance and condition.

Observations on advice regarding energy requirements from female coaches to female clients.

Obviously the quality and the nature of the advice given will vary, and we must assess the quality of any advice on it's own merits rather than on the gender of who it has come from. Increasingly and encouragingly, my observation is that a lot more female coaches are against restriction of energy intake or choices of foods in pursuit of body condition goals.

This is GOOD! Although often I'm concerned that the message might inadvertently reinforce the idea that "not restricting" means fat gain in some people. We must emphasise that best condition will come from improvements in performance while being more optimally fueled, and that an active person with these goals requires a greater energy intake than a less active person.

On the other hand though, there's also a tendency with some female trainers & coaches to attempt to normalise their own restrictive eating habits and fat phobia with the same sort of advice described previously, with inappropriately low calorie limits which do not take level of activity into account.

Reiterating the bottom line: there is nothing problematic about having a goal of a leaner athletic condition, but as an athlete, aspiring athlete, or active enthusiast you require appropriate sports nutrition guidance with a focus on improving performance and condition, and not based on "being a girl and wanting to lose weight". And you definitely don't need to bulk first and cut later, unless you intend to compete in a heavier weight class or are actually underweight due to illness or eating disorder.

If you'd care to discuss this article you may do so on my facebook page, here.

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