• Dr. Julie Granger PT, DPT, SCCS SCS

Fueling Female Athletes: What's a girl athlete to eat? (Part 1)

I know...you may be knee deep in sugar cookies, holiday parties and school celebrations. The last thing you want to hear is talk about "eating right."

Maybe you would prefer to hit snooze on this topic and re-examine it on January 1st. No problem! I'll be back! In fact, this blog isn't going to be your average nutrition and food blog. Far from it. I'm setting a few ground rules before we get into that topic.

In this post, I'll be covering topics related to the nourishment and fueling of active females. Why? Because whether you are an active female or you are a parent of one, chances are come January 1st, you may find yourself wanting to be more active and/or eat more healthily. And the girl? She may be in the midst of a sport season or about to start a new one. How can you ensure that you're facilitating health for the two of you as you stay active or get more active? It starts with the right kind of nourishment! But before we talk about nourishment, let's just get a few little topics out of the way.

(1) Diet is a Four Letter Word. We don't eat to survive.

Let's talk about a word that I don't love: diets. Unless you live under a rock (and I know you don't because you are reading this!), we can't escape the talk about them. It's everywhere! Terms like gluten free, dairy free, paleo, vegan, and anti-inflammatory have taken over social media and restaurant menus. What's right for you? What's right for active and growing girls? Well, for starters, if you've been following me for awhile, you probably know what the answer is. That's right: It depends.

So, it may make me sound nit-picky about semantics, but the word diet brings with it the connotation of rigidity, rules, deprivation, guilt, shame, body image problems and, perhaps, my least favorite phrase, "cheat meals." Come on. You're either on the diet or you aren't. If you want to indulge, then by all means--please do so willingly and lovingly! Life's short! But don't call it cheating. That implies guilt and shame, and I don't recommend eating that 3rd donut if you're going to feel guilty or shameful about it later. Eat it because you are ok with moderation and love yourself enough to let yourself indulge. There is no perfection in nourishment, so it's ok to be imperfect from time to time. Unless of course you eat something you're allergic to. That's not something I recommend.

This isn't prison, high school detention, or the military. This is life. One of our main jobs in this earthly life is to nourish ourselves so we can thrive, not so we can see how long we can avoid sugar or fat because we're concerned with some external goal. That's not to say that external goals are wrong. They're great! But we ALL have our own specific nourishment needs. We ALL live in a world where Instagram stories and portrait mode photos depict all kinds of possible nutrition "programs." And we become programmed by these photos and stories whether we know it or not. We may feel pressured to conform to certain diets or lifestyles. We may feel like we're not eating healthily enough, as if there is always room to improve. We may feel like we're bad parents, bad athletes, or like we have to exercise in order to eat the foods we want to eat. Why all the guilt and shame? You know what comes along with guilt and shame? Cheating. And once we fall down that slippery slope, we feel shame for cheating. So then we just give up. Chances are, you are doing the very best you can. But maybe you're curious about how to optimize, improve, or better your health or the life or health of a girl you know. You may find yourself sitting there wondering, "What does all this quasi-anti-New Year's resolution talk have to do with active girls?"

If you're an active girl, chances are you are influenced by the other girls, parents, teachers, friends and coaches around you regarding what you choose to eat. If you're the parent of an active girl, chances are you hold the biggest influence on what she chooses or is allowed to eat. While there is certainly some influence from outside, the majority of a child's and teen's lifestyle and eating behaviors are learned from her parents and household. Therefore, what you think, say, or do about food will likely become what she thinks, says, or does about food.

(2) So if it's not a diet, then what do we do exactly? We eat to thrive.

That gets me to my next question: have you ever stopped and asked the question, "What is the RIGHT answer for me personally?" What about "What is right for the girls in my life?" How could you find out?

Before you pick up that fancy handheld computer that lives in your pocket or purse, I guarantee that if you ask my colleague Dr. Google those questions, Dr. Google will give you roughly 47859 competing answers. Taking that one step further, I bet you could decide that a certain nourishment plan is right for you or a active girl in your life and find 47859 articles to support that decision. What you may or may not know is that you could also find the same number of articles to refute that decision. Maybe you've been through that process. Maybe you haven't. Bottom line: it's confusing, now isn't it? Here's the thing: regardless of what well-meaning blogs, stories, snap videos, other parents, other coaches, or active girls may say, it's most important to ensure that the way you or a girl in your life are fueling themselves is 100 percent personal, self-loving, affordable and reasonable. And that you're doing it out of love for yourself, your body, so that you can thrive in live. Thriving means something different to every single person. Seriously, line up 10 of your best friends, and survey each of them individually on the definition of thrive. You might be surprised at what you find. So, what you eat in order to thrive may not be exactly what your best friend, your coworker, or your child's coach recommend. There are a million and a half reasons why eating an all natural, GMO-free, organic only diet is great for you. Believe me, I can cite a million different articles about that, and I will do so in upcoming blogs. But if you don't have access to those types of foods, they're not affordable, or you <gasp> just don't like them, you don't have to feel guilt or shame about it or go to unreasonable lengths to eat those foods. You do you. But wait.

Before you start chugging nuclear orange aerosol cheese from a can (is that still even a thing?) or downing truck loads of sweets and candy, let's make sure we find a happy, sustainable middle ground here.

(3) I've got it! Don't eat to survive. Eat to thrive. What do I need to know so we can find that middle ground?

For girls, because they are in a constant state of growth and development, it can be a challenge to determine exactly what types of food and how much of it are right for her. Last time I checked, most girls don't do the grocery shopping and meal prep (though I'd highly suggest even the youngest girls be engaged and allowed to participate)! With active girls and teens, several factors to consider influence their nourishment. This includes getting the right amounts of and right types of fuel for: 1) Facilitating physical, cognitive (brain!), and emotional development

Growth doesn't stop when she becomes taller than all of the boys. Girls continue development on all 3 realms into their mid-late 20's. Proper fueling helps ensure her body, mind, and spirit is set up for success along the way. 2) Maximize their potential to do their best in sports

I'm not just talking about winning. Doing their best includes learning how to fall down and get back up, stay focused on their goals, strategize, be a good team player, and put in their best effort, regardless of the outcome. Without enough fuel, girls' sports performance on all of these realms may suffer. 3) Keeping good, steady, normal menstrual cycles

Establishing a normal menstrual cycle is one of the first major ways to ensure that a girl is in tip top shape health-wise. Abnormal cycles are a sign that she is not getting enough of or the right types of nutrients. Within 2 years of starting her period, her period should be "regular" (21-35 days). Abnormal cycles can also be a sign that the rest of her body systems are not being nourished, which can affect her overall function and development (see #1). 4) Preventing tissue damage (i.e. injuries) and illness

Bodies cannot stay strong, heal, or get strong again if they don't have the right amount of nutrients. Does she have recurrent injuries, aches, and pains? What about colds, sinus infections, allergies, and other illnesses? 5) Resting and digesting

You may have heard the phrases "fight or flight" and "rest and digest." Even with the best nutrients and fueling plans, a female's system will not absorb the nutrients she needs if she is constantly on-the-go, stressed, overworked, and not resting. Excess sugar, caffeine, and stress can inhibit her ability to absorb the great nutrients she is eating, which will keep her from being able to use them in sports, at school, and for growth and development. 6) Succeeding in the classroom

Given that her body is developing and she likely has more demands on herself these days than we adults ever did academically, nutrition and rest are the keys to success here. So lemme guess. The girls you know (and maybe even you...eek!) have trouble finding time to cook or shop to get all the nourishment you need. Maybe you are or she is skipping breakfast. Maybe she's choosing unhealthy snack options. That's ok! You're doing the very best you can! If you're ready to take a look at how you are fueling yourselves, great! If not, that's ok too. It's never too late to start where you are, make small changes, and begin to right your ships. With time and support, you can get yourself and the girl in your life where she wants and needs to be for optimal health and wellness.

Now that we have established a framework for our Fueling Active Females discussion, check out my next blog where we answer the following questions:

1) What is the relationship between nutrition, a healthy menstrual cycle, and sports performance? 2) What are simple ways that parents and coaches can facilitate proper nourishment and fueling knowledge and practice in girls? 3) Where does resting and digesting come in, and how does it relate to fueling?

Ready to go the extra mile?

I go into a lot more detail and provide all kinds of secrets in my new e-book, Fueled and Fabulous, which is specially written in language that is understandable for girls and teens (and their moms)!

Get your hands on it now!

Still have questions about how to nourish yourself or an active girl you know so that you can thrive? Reach out for support! I offer personalized health and life coaching for active girls. I'd love to chat with you about and help you get your questions answered!

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