UniSA researchers say AFLW athletes struggle to get enough energy from their diet

A small study of the AFLW Adelaide Crows has found that very few players are meeting their nutritional needs – with less than 30% meeting the recommended minimum energy targets for elite athletes.

“We found that players were not consuming enough energy and carbohydrate to fuel their body across the different seasons of the AFLW competition, including pre-season and competition,” University of South Australia researcher and practising dietitian Dr Alison Hill told Cosmos Science.

“Requirements are individual, but on average they were consuming 10-25% less energy than they needed.”

The researchers looked at 19 Adelaide Crow’s players at three points over the 2020/2021 season – one week at the start of preseason, one week at the end of preseason and one week at the end of the season, analysing their blood, GPS data, and most importantly, their food intake.

They found that the carbohydrate intake especially was much lower than it needed to be (3.6 grams per kg per day) and it became even lower during preseason and competition. The researchers suggest that this could have health implications over the longer term.  

“Some of the players were also at risk of low energy availability, which is where there is a mismatch between energy intake and energy expended in exercise, leaving insufficient energy to support hormonal, metabolic and functional processes required for optimal health,” Hill said.

“The sport is still developing and many of the players are new to AFLW or have come from other sports, so are still learning about and adjusting to the needs of their bodies.

“Most of the athletes in our study were also working or studying full time which can impact on their ability to prepare foods.”

When asked if this had to do with women potentially having more issues around eating and weight, Hill says that this is a default assumption, but it’s not always the case. It’s important to note that this study didn’t look into this particular hypothesis.

“There are many reasons why players may not be meeting their requirements,” she added.

Although the UniSA researchers can’t tell exactly why these nutrition levels are not being met, past research suggests that this a problem across many team sporting codes – both male and female – and more research will need to be done into why this is happening.

It’s one of a number of issues affecting athletes – another is concussion, with studies showing that female athletes not only have a higher risk of sustaining a concussion, they take a longer time to recover than men.

But unlike concussion, this nutrition issue – at least with the Crows – might be able to be fixed.

“Nutrition is important for performance and AFL clubs, certainly the club we worked with, is clearly invested in getting this right for their athletes, and they’re using our findings to do just that,” says Hill.

The research has been published in Science and Medicine in Football.

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