I realize that I never officially announced a rather big life change- I’ve relocated to Australia. While it was about a year ago that I found out about this opportunity to move to the other side of the world, I was reluctant to share the news with too many people given the COVID situation making life rather unpredictable. Honestly, I was sceptical that this move was going to even happen until I made it into the country given all the hurdles that it took to enter Australia. Despite my scepticism, I officially landed in Australia on December 22nd.
While it may seem that I moved to Australia to escape the Canadian winter, the main reason was to start my PhD. My PhD is going to focus on gender gaps in sports nutrition research. Unfortunately, female athletes are vastly underrepresented in sport science research. Findings from studies conducted in male athletes are assumed to result in similar findings in female athletes with the “shrink it and pink it” approach often being applied. Yet, there are obviously many physiological differences between males and females that could result in different findings. Here are just three examples (there are many more):
- Fuel use during exercise: Compared to males, females use more fat and less carbohydrates as a fuel source during exercise. There are multiple reasons for this difference in fuel utilization. This includes the higher levels of estrogen in females, which promotes fat utilization as well as differences in muscle fibre composition. Females tend to have a higher percentage of type 1 muscle fibres (AKA slow twitch fibres) that use more fat as fuel whereas males have a higher percentage of type II fibres (AKA fast twitch fibres).
- Anthropometrics: This one is visually obvious. Males and females are built differently. This includes not only difference in height, but also body composition. In general, females have less muscle mass and higher body fat levels compared to males. The distribution of fat stores can also differ between males and females. Females tend to be more pear-shaped and males more apple-shaped.
- Thermoregulation: There are multiple biological differences between males and females that may result in different thermoregulatory responses to the heat. Females have a lower body water volume compared to males. This means that they may have a smaller capacity for dehydration. On the other hand, females tend to have a lower sweat rate, smaller body size and lower heat generation. This means that females may have less fluid losses and in turn lower fluid needs compared to male athletes.
Beyond these biological differences, there are also numerous other factors that need to be considered, which may influence the practicality of sports nutrition recommendations. This includes differences in funding levels with females often receiving significantly less funding than males and/or the decision to have children and the influence of this on athletic careers.
The reasons for lack of female representation in sport science research are numerous. One reason is that females are more complicated to study compared to males. The cyclical changes in sex hormones across the menstrual cycle often needs to be controlled for, which creates more work for researchers and requires more money. This is further complicated by factors that may impact the menstrual cycle, such as with menopause, hormonal contraceptive usage, or low energy availability. Yet, females being more difficult to study is not a good enough reason to exclude them from research. Females need to be better represented in research so that we can ensure that sport nutrition recommendations that they are given are best practice.
I’m still working out the finer details of my PhD and the exact studies that I will be conducting. Evidently, there is no shortage of research questions, and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.