Formulating sports supplements for the female athlete

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 23 No. 6
Volume 23
Issue 6

A sports supplement aimed at a male athlete shouldn’t necessarily have the same formulation or benefits as one targeting a female athlete. Yet many still do.

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Feminists have spent generations trying to ingrain into our laws, our workplaces, our families, our playing fields-into our collective psyche itself-that women and men are equal, or should certainly be treated as such. And their efforts have made admirable progress.

Consider women’s gains at the highest levels of athletic competition. “In the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, 45% of all participants were women-almost twice as many as 1976,” notes Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, RH (AHG), senior director of product formulation, NutraScience Labs (Farmingdale, NY). “This was the largest rate of female participation in Olympic history.”

And that’s not all female athletes have to crow about: During those games, more medals went to women than to men among all 29 countries taking part. And don’t forget the 2019 Women’s World Cup. “It saw a wealth of talent from across the globe and set a mark in the history of women’s sport,” Bruno says.

But while we should all by now agree that women can scale the same sporting heights as men-and in some cases climb even higher (just sayin’!)-that doesn’t mean that male and female athletes are the same.

Which is why a sports supplement aimed at a male tennis player shouldn’t necessarily have the same formulation or benefits as one targeting a female triathlete. Yet many still do.

It’s a baffling state of play, says Bruno. “In virtually all areas of sports,” he notes, “women have left no stone unturned. Yet the market share of products focusing on women’s athletic needs is comparatively low.” It needn’t be this way.


Getting in the Game

Setting aside elite competitors, are “average” women getting into the game, so to speak, in greater numbers? “Yes,” Bruno says, “but there’s still a gender gap.”

To wit, at a fundamental level women appear less likely than men to get sufficient exercise, according to an analysis of global population-based surveys1. And Centers for Disease Control data2 show that while 57% of men age 18 and older meet recommended aerobic activity levels, women remain behind at 49%.

“The gap widens even more when it comes to the number of people meeting guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity,” Bruno notes, pointing to an analysis of national health statistics3 as proof. “It’s been argued that one of the reasons for this is a sense of gym intimidation that women may feel, but that being said, it’s also been reported that 22 million women belong to a gym4, and previous studies among fitness-center members reveal that women have a slightly higher desire for wellness, a well-trained body, and weight loss than men do.5

The upshot: “The potential market for women’s sports nutrition is enormous,” Bruno concludes, “although it is somewhat different from men. Many female athletes are more interested in being fit and toned, rather than building muscle mass.”

And that should guide brands in targeting formulation benefits. “In general,” Bruno says, “it appears that women want sports-nutrition products for performance enhancement, workout recovery, muscle building, and fatigue reduction.”


Separate, Not Equal

If those benefits are what female athletes want, which supplement ingredients do they need?

Surprisingly, Bruno notes, “The same nutrients and bioactives are, for the most part, important for both sexes.” Nevertheless, he continues, “While there are significant commonalities in the nutritional needs of both male and female athletes, women tend to have a greater need for iron because of ongoing losses during menstruation. And clearly, a lack of iron will negatively affect energy levels.”

Also widely acknowledged is the greater need for calcium among women-athletic or otherwise-particularly during pregnancy and lactation, he adds.


ENDs Justify Means

But especially intriguing are the established sex-based differences that men and women exhibit in carbohydrate and fat metabolism during moderate-intensity endurance exercise (END), Bruno explains-differences that he says also “influence adaptation to nutritional and exercise regimens aiming to improve health and performance.”

“Specifically,” Bruno continues, “during END of the same relative intensity, women have a lower respiratory exchange ratio than men-indicative of a lesser reliance on carbohydrate oxidation to support fuel requirements for exercise.” In fact, compared to men, women show less reliance on both liver and muscle glycogen during END, he notes.

Further, not only do women store larger deposits of fat droplets in muscle cells-intramyocellular lipid, or IMCL-to support fuel needs during END than men do; a greater percentage of women’s IMCL also appears to be in contact with mitochondria after a bout of END relative to that in men. This suggests a greater capacity among women to use IMCL, Bruno notes, adding that, “crucially, these sex-based differences in metabolism during END are demonstrably mediated by estrogen6.”


Primed for Protein

What insights these observations hold for formulating women’s sports-performance supplements is hard to say-but that doesn’t stop Bruno from offering his own suggestions.

“And in my opinion,” he says, protein is probably the most important” ingredient to include.

And not just any protein. Bruno is bullish on pea protein, thanks to its potential appeal to women. For one, multiple studies support its effects on satiety. One such study7 investigating the effects of 10 or 20 grams of isolated yellow-pea protein on food intake in healthy subjects aged 20 to 30 found that 20 grams led to significantly less food intake than the control-translating into about 12% fewer calories consumed-while both the 10- and 20-gram levels “helped keep a handle on pre-meal blood-glucose levels compared to control,” Bruno says.

Research also suggests that pea protein may play a role in diet-induced thermogenesis-the body’s increased heat production as it burns calories following a meal. Two trials8 conducted by the same researchers looked into the effects of pea and soy protein on this phenomenon and found that both proteins yielded similar diet-induced thermogenic results, Bruno says, “suggesting that consuming pea protein is an ideal one-two punch for helping support weight loss: promoting satiety to help reduce food consumption, and promoting thermogenesis to help burn calories.”

It may not earn a female athlete a spot at the podium, but it could certainly help some meet their wellness goals.


  1. Guthold R et al. “Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 358 population-based surveys with 1·9 million participants.” The Lancet Global Health, vol. 6, no. 10 (October 2018): e1077-e1086
  2. Early release of selected estimates based on data from the National Health Interview Survey. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics. January-March, 2017: 43-54
  3. Blackwell DL et al. “State variation in meeting the 2008 federal guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities through leisure-time physical activity among adults aged 18–64: United States 2010–2015.” National Health Statistics Reports, no. 112. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.
  4. Gym statistics: members, equipment, and cancellations. Fitness for Weight Loss. 2015. Retrieved February 11, 2020. Accessed at:
  5. Riseth L et al. “Long-term members’ use of fitness centers: a qualitative study.” BMC Sports Science, Medicine, and Rehabilitation. Published online February 21, 2019.
  6. Devries MC. “Sex-based differences in endurance exercise muscle metabolism: impact on exercise and nutritional strategies to optimize health and performance in women.” Experimental Physiology, vol. 101, no. 2 (February 2016): 243-249
  7. Smith CE et al. “The effect of yellow pea protein and fibre on short-term food intake, subjective appetite and glycaemic response in healthy young men.” British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 108, supplement 1 (August 2012): S74-80
  8. Claessens M et al. “The thermogenic and metabolic effects of protein hydrolysate with or without a carbohydrate load in healthy male subjects.” Metabolism, vol. 56, no. 8 (August 2007): 1051-1059
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